One Stone, Chapter 18

Vince, as an engineer, enjoyed the auspicious rank of Lieutenant, which was more of a liability on the front where a sudden and abrupt interruption in the chain of command might have put him in the position of authority over people whose primary interest was not finely designed clockwork but rather putting holes in foreigners, often at range. For the most part, life on the front had been a hectic scrabble to always ensure that in the eternal game of one upmanship that was military rank, he was always losing no matter the room he was in. Travelling with a General was therefore a breathtaking opportunity to attempt relaxing, even if the man tended to eat with his hands and spit bones out at things.

They’d received the message six weeks ago. Six weeks! The first two weeks had been simple, hard riding through the web of interconnected bases and trenches that stretched across the Holy Land between Tiberan cities, and it had, for the best part, been quiet. They were all soldiers here, and when they made it to each new station, the General’s momentum just sped them along. Vince was familiar with military acquisitions – the way the general walked into a way station, demanded water, food to eat on the move, and fresh horses made him inwardly turn green. He’d waited six months once for a new screwdriver.

Sometimes they’d been travelling north, sometimes south, but always west. It wasn’t until they broke out of the trenches, when they started riding across hard packed sand, along highways that Vince realised he had no idea why he was with the general.

Vince was not a man given to questioning his personal fortune; an authority figure had just pulled him away from a very dangerous location, no questions asked, and it had been weeks since anyone had shot at him.

When they’d hit the highway, and the scowling seriousness of the bearded man faded, when they weren’t in the war any more, however, there was a lot of time to think. There was the thud-thud-thud of horse hooves hitting packed sand and hard earth, and the long journey under the sun, with the steady rising scent of horse sweat accompanying.

Nobody wanted to talk.

Leigh had a perpetual scowl on her face as they rode, probably wanting to blurt out things, but mostly, she’d just leant over and muttered to Vince as they went, like she was trying to pass notes in class. Most of the time she hadn’t had anything to say, just complaints about the way her brain felt hot, or the sun, or how she was starting to peel, or how she felt like a lizard, or whatever.

The messenger – Stannisfeld, he’d introduced himself, on the road – did try to talk, occasionally. The term that Vince had decided – after much deliberation – appropriate for him was piping up. Like someone had sat on an organ in a quiet church. A high and soft note, a question that rose up in amongst the group and that nobody seemed to want to answer in the long, steady grind of travel. Oo, grind was a good way to think of it. It made the labour sound harder.

Anyway, Stannisfeld would pipe up, ask a question, and nobody would answer it. It reminded Vince of a particularly cold classroom, with that One Boy who just had to try and make friends.

“I say, this highway is quite old, isn’t it?”

“Isn’t it strange how horses don’t blink when you’re looking at them?”

“I do wonder what’s going on back at the front.”

His questions were loosed upon the world like sweet little lambs being given freedom in a yard, whereupon they were vaporised in the dreadful silence that hung over the other riders. And a few kayem down the road, he’d try again.

The only people seemingly not bothered by the ride, however, were the General, who rode leaning back in his saddle with a little metal platform resting against the horn, upon which he seemed to be either reading, or sometimes writing, and Gael, the redheaded woman.

Thankfully, they were attacked by lions, which finally gave them something to talk about.

Vince hadn’t been very proud of himself in basic training, when handling a gun. It wasn’t that gunmanship was something he considered important, but it was a machine, and it was a machine that some dreadfully stupid people could use well. Since he didn’t consider himself very stupid, the way that his shot had arced wide on the training and practice ranges had seemed a personal insult. It wasn’t that practice wouldn’t improve him, he was just annoyed that he had to. After all, it all seemed dreadfully straightforwards. Point, pull trigger, fire. Oh, surely a bit more tension and stress when you were under attack, but really, the way other people seemed to use guns seemed positively wasteful.

When he’d shot at the first lion, the bullet had blown up a clod of dirty twenty ems away and five ems wide of the lion. The horses scattered as the prowling, yowling beast, big and yellow and rangy, had leapt from some rocks, and Vince remembered there was quite a bit of yelling? But when the second lion joined in, attacking from behind – flanking, Vince corrected himself – the roaring was louder than the yelling.

One of the lions had lunged for his horse, which was pretty rude, and he’d fallen off it, which was really embarrassing. Briefly, Vince had seen images of fangs and teeth and hair and eyes, glaring down at him, when Stannisfeld, the flighty messenger, had swept past, his hand clamping onto the back of Vince’s uniform, where the straps crossed, and hauled him up into the saddle, riding away from the lions just in time to avoid being lunch.

Being flung into Stannisfeld’s lap like a sack of potatoes was not only undignified, but it meant Vince missed most of the rest of the fight. What he did know, as the horse wheeled around after the roaring stopped, was the general stood over the prone form of two lions. In one hand, he held his pistol, smoking still, and in the other, he held his sword, red to the hilt.

The mountain of a man looked around at his retinue. Gael, who hadn’t so much as put a hair out of place, but had apprehended Vince’s bolting horse. Leigh, who’d been the second target after Vince had been carried off. Stannisfeld and Vince, riding one horse, in a pose that Vince quietly resented for being dreadfully like a knight and a princess in a period drama.

“Nice work, princess.” Leigh guffawed, nicely coalescing the worst of Vince’s self-consciousness into a single spat phrase. She held the reins of his horse out for him daintily.

“Now now,” Yull said, smoothing out his coat. “A lad can be a princess if he wants. Nothin’ funny ‘bout that.” Tucking the pistol back in his holster, he leant down to tilt the head of the dead lion with one hand.

Leigh looked momentarily annoyed at the rebuke – but turned to grin at Vince. He had a new nickname now. She mouthed princess at him while Yull’s back was turned, and grinned cheekily.

“Good amount of meat on these,” he spoke, and it was the conversational tone he’d had in the trenches, far away. “You law mind setting up camp now? Could take a while, have some fresh meat. Been ridin’ hard enough for the Crown’s tastes… now we’re out of the war we can probably slow down a bit.” A cluck of his tongue, a shake of his head, and he seemed preoccupied by something. “Twin lions. Fancy that.”

Vince liked machines. He wasn’t very fond of flesh, and had been born high enough in his station in life that, prior to the military, he’d never had any reason to really look at how flesh was put together. That blind spot in his education was simply obliterated as he watched the general and Gael gut, skin, and clean the lions, turning them into orderly slabs of meat stretched out flat, hot rocks.

The campfire smelled of the meat, which honestly, didn’t smell very good. The meat was cycled into the flame in hard chunks, cooked hot, charred on a metal plate the general had had about him. They ate strips of the meat, and while Vince couldn’t help but imagine he was eating the leanest, least pleasant pork he’d ever had, Leigh and Gael practically inhaled the stuff.

The sun had set, some of the food eaten, some prepared for travel, in rolls of tightly-folded paper, and a warm quiet had settled upon them all. When Yull spoke, it wasn’t the tone of a man with his mind elsewhere.

“You all been serving long, law?” Vince was pretty sure he knew what law meant, now. It probably was something like boy, the way that the general kept directing it at people.

A pair of nods and a nod around the campfire. Vince cleared his throat and answered, “Not really, sir.”

“Not really?” Yull asked.

“Well, I’ve only served on the field for a year.”

“A year and they’ve put you out here?” Yull asked. “You must have annoyed someone.”

“No, actually,” Vince said, bold by the campfire’s golden light, and the way the General seemed to be treating him like an actual person. “I performed very well at the academy, and they sent me out to the front to do trench repairs.”

“Schooled well? Know your mottos, then, do you?” the huge man pointed the tip of his sword, still stained with ash from the campfire, at Vince. “Engineers, right?”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

“What is it? Your motto, mean. Know what it is, don’t you?”

“Ah, I do,” Vince said, rather primly, clearing his throat. “It’s ‘Ubiq.'” The smugness of knowing, rather than being told, and interrupting Yull’s teacherly tone, was a delicious flavour on the back of his tongue.

“Know what it means?”

“Ah, well-” Suddenly it didn’t taste so good.

“Everywhere. It means ‘everywhere.'”

“That’s a stupid motto.” Leigh grumbled, lying on her belly by the fire, her blanket piled up under her chin.

“Is it?” Yull asked, turning the sword back into the ashes, stirring them. “It’s a promise. It’s a threat. It says wherever you are, we can fix your problem. It says wherever you’ve built your wall, we can take it down. It’s a proud motto, law, and don’t let anyone tell you others. Alright, law, what about yours?” Tip of the sword, flicked with ashes, pointed at Gael.

The redhead sneered a little, raising her chin at the big man. “Non regis, Non Deo, Sed Pretium.”

“Don’t know that one,” Yull said, his swordtip steady. “Know the meaning?”

She gave a scoff. “No kings, no gods. Only money.” She shook her head. “You don’t speak Latin?”

“Only a little.”

“Like ‘ubiq?'” she asked, throwing a glance at Vince, who very much looked like he’d have dropped it.

“Mmhm,” rumbled Yull, putting his swordtip back into the ashes. “I like mottos. The words you carry with you, all the time. Even if you’re a mercenary.” And he grinned across the flames at her. “Most regiments have a motto of some sort.” He said, rolling his shoulder to look at Leigh, who was quietly shrinking against her bedroll as if she could hide in her own shadow. “Know yours?”

“Um, well,” she began, turning her head, trying to peer at the patch on her shoulder that marked her as King’s Artillery.

Ultima ratio regum.” Stannisfeld’s voice was a murmur.

Yull looked across at him, and smiled. “King’s Artillery’s motto, yes ‘tis. But do you know what it means.”

“’The last resort of kings.’” Stannisfeld said.

The quiet settled back in… but now Yull was one of the students, digesting the lesson.

“Y’speak Latin, law?” Yull asked.

“No sir.”

“Just that.”

“And In bello, manus ad numeros.” Stannisfeld murmured, swallowing and waiting a moment.

Gael sat forwards in her seat, before Yull could ask a meaning. “’In times of war, we wield numbers?’”

Stannisfeld smiled brightly. “Y-yes!” He said, smoothing his brown hair against his head. “I’m sorry, yes.”

Yull tilted his head. “That’s an odd pair of things to know. Now, law… why do you know that?”

Stannisfeld adjusted in his chair. “Well, the First Bridge across the Timoritia River has a cannon on it… and those slogans are engraved on them.”

“Know much about cannons?”

“No, but I do know much about mathematics.”

“Why’s that?”

“Um, because, when I was very young, I was interested in windmills.”

Leigh, realising she was no longer under fire for not doing her homework, propped herself up on her elbows and watched. “Windmills?” she asked.

“Yes, um. They’re very complex machines, to make them properly. You need to do all sorts of mathematics when you design them, based on the wind you have. You want a lot of regular, smooth wind, and the weights you’re turning have to be able to handle the strain-“

“Good at math, are you?” asked Yull.

“Yes sir.”

“Why aren’t you an engineer?” someone blurted, and a moment after it had been said, Vince realised it’d been him.

“Um, I’m not allowed to enlist…” Stannisfeld swallowed, embarrassed.

“… because there’s a touch of Djansk to you, isn’t there, law?” Yull asked.

“Um, yes.” Stannisfeld said, a little nervously.

“No shame in that. Parents traders?”

“Yes, actually. Um, bought some property when it became politically unwise to be in Djansk any longer.”

“Hah… let me guess. Around the time the crown changed hands?”

“A little after.”

“How little after?”

“About long enough for my mother to see the new tax rates.”

“Hah! Heard the new king was a poor one. Didn’t realise that’s how it went.” Yull shifted back into his chair. “So now you’ve seen both sides of it – the king’s demands, and how the king has them heard.” He said, stretching his shoulders back and heaving an enormous yawn. “Bet he believes he’s doin’ the just thing, too. Let me tell you this much, law; There’s not a person who don’t believe what they want to, and what they want to believe comes easy to ’em.”

The way he said it, there was some special weight to it, some silence that followed hard upon. The silence was finally broken when he spoke again.

“Alright, law. Get yourself some rest,” he shoved backwards, pushing his pile up with his backside against a rock, nestling against it. “I’ll watch the fire yet for a bit.”

Vincent tried to feel annoyed at the way the general had casually put the entire group to bed, like undisciplined children, and decided it was just coincidence that that’s when he felt so very warm and tired and full of fresh, if low quality, meat.

The general sat with his portable writing desk on his knees, and script out the words as they came to his mind.

My Dearest Calpurnia.

It’s funny you mention in your last letter, ‘twin lions…’

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