One Stone, Chapter 10

With the meeting concluded, Marko sat on the bench in the kitchen. Even while his mind whirled with what he’d been asked, he sat stoically and watched Wardell weave his way between class barriers and brew tea.

“So you don’t actually know who any of them are?” Marko asked, his elbows on the table, hands tucked into his elbows. Outside, rain sheeted down, but here in the town house, with its high roof and second storey, it just sounded as a muffled march of owls somewhere above.

“Well, even if I did, Fiver, is it really my place to say?”

There it was, again. Wardell didn’t call him Marko, which was his name, and which Wardell knew, and he didn’t call him Mister Fiver, which is what a typical servant would know to do. Mister served as a useful, all-purpose title these days, since having money had supplanted my dad had some money as the paramount way to earn respect.

“Are any of them your employer, Wardell?” Marko’s question had a bone in it – he was a professional personal guard, after all, these were questions that could save a man’s life. Typically, he wasn’t used to anyone obscuring who they were.

“Ah, no,” Wardell shook his head. “I would believe at this point in my life I am performing some public charity work, while collecting the remnants of a military pension.”

Marko squinted at that. Wardell was no older than he was – possibly younger. “Pension, Wardell?”

“Yes, Fiver.” Wardell gestured at his shoulder with one hand, as the other set out a pair of cups. “Wounded Serviceman award. I took two rounds in the shoulder and ah, tripped and fell under a cannon.” He nodded.

Marko sat up at that. “You don’t show it.”

“It has been a number of years,” said Wardell evasively. “And while it has prevented me from a more energetic pastime or two, it has not impeded me as much as I feared.”

“But it stopped you being a soldier.” Marko added, watching the teakettle rattle on the stovetop. Underneath it, blue flames shivered at a tiny fluctuation, while the kettle began to jig.

“I daresay if not for the injury, the campaign end would have done that just fine, Fiver.”

Marko rubbed his neck with one hand. While part of him was still sitting in that room, listening to four masks asking him about past campaigns, about his time serving at the side of Yull Bachthane, some idly-ignored part of his own memory fell into place and started turning a very dusty cog.

“… That’s where we met, isn’t it Wardell?” Marko asked. The name wasn’t particularly exceptional – he’d met a Wardell or two, and he’d met a Marko or five in his time. When he’d been told to meet with Wardell at the town house, it had been just another generic name to slide into his memory, a nobody. When he was inside the townhouse, Wardell was just another one of those people who worked for Nobles, just like Marko. Now, however, the man shuffling around between the cupboards, picking the sugar out of there, the milk out of the icebox, and slicing up a lemon – because someone wanted that – had about him the mien of a soldier.

It was something about the way the man stood. Wardell didn’t look you in the eye, but he did look where you were looking. It was something that held a rifle and –

Marko shook his head, literally, and looked at Wardell all anew. “Wardell!” he said, his memory finally turning to an old page.

It was not a page that made Marko comfortable at the best of times. It was a page that was stained with sand and salt water, and with too, too much blood. It was back when they tried to do cavalry charges against stolen cannons, at the northern ridges of the Southern Continent, in the Djansk provinces.

“A bloody little struggle that didn’t really matter,” Wardell’s voice drifted into Marko’s ears, from a thousand kayem away, on the other side of the kitchen table, “Except to the few that remained.”

And that was why he was Fiver. He wasn’t Marko Fiver, the Hero of the Charge of Heltskruet. He was Fiver, a sergeant amongst corporals and privates, looking at thirty men nervously fingering second-hand rifles that didn’t handle the sand well. The natives had revolted against the Djansk colonists, and that seemed a perfect time, according to high command, to strike amongst the mess. There was confusion, after all – the Djansk soldiers wouldn’t know Tiberans from their own men. The optimistic idea failed to perhaps recognise that to the locals of the villages around Heltskruet, particularly those who had worked silver mines, whether they were using stolen guns and cannons to shoot at Djansk or Tiberan was a linguistic hair they had no personal reason to split. Certainly not when you considered how easily Djansk and Tiberan bodies split.

Two sides, no retreat, a completely idiotic charge that lost eight swords out of every ten. Marko had been one of the lucky ones. Clearly, Wardell had been, too, but not nearly so lucky as Marko.

He’d mentioned it to the masks, in the room, but they hadn’t been very interested. They didn’t care when he met Yull Bachthane, they cared about what he’d done alongside Yull. They wanted to talk about Yull as a General, Yull as a Leader. They wanted to feel his booming voice in the room and size the man up. Marko was not happy – it put him in mind of prewar councils, of nobles discussing invasions and whether or not generals could manage it. What next? Across the channel, to start another war of suppression with the damn –

“Fiver?” Wardell’s voice echoed and Marko realised he’d been there again, in the sand and the blood.

“Ah, sorry, Wardell… what was it? Sergeant?”

“Private.” Wardell said, sliding a cup of tea across the table to him. A wan, apologetic smile on his lips as he sat down. “I was injured before the fighting really broke out. It’s why I came back home on a donkey, not in a box.”

Marko Fiver looked down at the tea, smiling. “I have it-“

“Something like six sugars, right?”

Lifting the sweet, milky tea to breathe in the scent, Marko couldn’t help but laugh and nod. “Good memory?”

“No,” Wardell said, standing and shuffling over to the tray, to set out the other cups of tea. “Just a good guess.”

Marko sipped his tea once, then once again, as she nursed the cup between her hands. “You think they’re seeking a war?”

“Asking after Yull Bachthane?” Wardell asked, dropping a slice of lemon into a cup. “I don’t fancy it, Fiver. If they wanted a war they’d just point him at it. I don’t much know why they want to understand the man unless he’s done something wrong.”

Marko nursed his chin with a fingertip. It was nice, knowing that Wardell and he had fought alongside each other – in as much as they had – because it meant that the surnames was a sign of relief, not disrespect. We are no longer privates and sergeants, it said. We can just be men. It was like a private schoolboy’s familiarity that followed well after school was ended, just far less likely to be glassed after a late-night binge.

“If Yull’s done anything wrong, I doubt he’d ever hide it.” Marko said, both hands holding the cup, his mind still kneeling around a campfire on a desert beach. “Man’s got the hide of an elephant and all the social grace.”

“I’ve heard,” Wardell said, diplomatically. “Figured that sort of thing was allowed for an officer.”

“I wasn’t an officer long.”

Wardell nodded, quietly, as he picked up the tray in both hands. “But you were a hero twice, Fiver. And even you think of Yull as a hero.”

Wardell made it to the doorframe before Marko called after him.

“I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you, Wardell. “

“Don’t blame you, Fiver,” he said, in the doorframe. “Some nights I wake up and I’m still under a cannon. Can’t imagine it’s any better for you for anything that reminds you of Heltskruet.”

Marko rubbed his cheek, trying not to feel traces of blood under his fingers, the dull roar of an ocean in the rain. “You mind if I walk home, Wardell? I feel a bit like being outside.”

“By all means, Fiver. Let yourself out and leave it unlatched when you go?”

Marko plucked his helmet by the door and stepped out into the rain, straight into a puddle. The gutters swelled and foamed, the swelling river-run of the higher streets hammered on by the raindrops from above. A few steps and he was in the middle of the street, far from the quiet, dry, warm little room, and the memories.

He had duties to begin, and damned if he’d let a fight he’d already won impede him any. His head forwards, nose against the rain, he stomped onwards, seething between his teeth.

Back inside the townhouse, Wardell slid the cups off the tray, to masked individuals with their white mask slid up to reveal an array of fine, strong, noble jaws and clean, white, well-kept teeth.

“It’s suspicious,” one said.

“Suspicious? If he was more perfect I’d say it was providence.”

“And for those of us who don’t believe in miracles?”

“We accept it. The task of killing a man changes you – quite frankly, I think I’d rather him a little damaged if he can do the job.”