An empire’s span away, Rafe leant back against the steeple of the church. Up on the rooftops of Timoritia, you could see the world differently. You didn’t have to walk on cobblestones with muck in between them. There weren’t any shoving and squalling people, reminding you that they didn’t care about anything in the world but whatever was going on in their lives. You could see the city as a city, with its structures all built together, the way the roofing changed colour at a certain point as mark of historical development. You could hear the train and the people roaring, but not any of the individual sounds.
Rafe really hated individual sounds. It was like children playing. It always sounded innocent and sweet, he’d been told – there were popular poems and songs that spoke of those things. Thing is, if you ever stopped to listen to the words the children said, you’d hear now you hold his arms down.
“Hello, Rafe.” Aderyn said, walking along the line of the church roof. It’d been a week since the Praefoco job. They’d returned to Brother Fratarelli, who had offered them both places to lay low – and crucially appended for now. Aderyn had politely declined, and as far as Rafe knew, gone back to her boarding school at the Assassins’ Guild. It seemed reasonable, nobody would look for an assassin there.
He’d found the basement tolerable living, but the bars and down there wigged him out. Brother Fratarelli had made great showings of how the locks had been taken away, and the bars were just a more effective form of wall than replacing them would indicate, but Rafe still didn’t like sleeping in a room behind lines of metal.
At night, Kivis left the church, which helped reassure him somewhat. Something about sleeping near her left him always looking over his shoulder.
“Eyo, Aderyn,” he responded, using her full name. Nicknaming her might give her the wrong impression. When she was close enough, she stood on the peak of the building, behind the steeple, behind Rafe. He looked over his shoulder for only a moment, before he stood up and turned to stand, facing her. She didn’t blink at that. Didn’t even seem to think there was anything odd about it. Rafe just took up his stance, and wondered about the silence that settled down… before eventually filling it.
“You know, I’ve had something on my mind…”
“What is it, Rafe?” She always pronounced his name oddly. That little tinge or flourish around it. Like she wanted to make sure the word didn’t run into other words. Probably just part of her accent.
“You remember Praefoco’s study?”
“Well, it was something – I mean, it seems a bit strange to think about it,” Rafe mused, tapping his fingertip on his chin. Aderyn made him self-conscious now. Before the hit, he thought he’d understood her – a young lady with an education she couldn’t apply, a girl thinking she was as hard as him. Then there’d been the demonstration with Tully, and Rafe had had to reconsider that. And then he realised his introspection had skidded around for a few moments too long and he’d forgotten where, in his sentence he’d left off. Standing there tapping his fingertip with his chin stupidly was not helping anything.
“The Black King’s Crown?” Aderyn asked, tilting her head.
“The what?” he asked, blinking and trying to pull his mind back on course. She’d stabbed him through his fucking jaw, that took strength for god’s sake, let alone how sharp that knife had to be – maybe it was the knife? Maybe she had better quality tools than he’d ever had, after all, a kitchen knife in the Drafts quarter wasn’t exactly about to do much good even –
“The Black Crown. It’s a bit of a Lleywa myth. I’m not surprised you don’t know about it.” And she didn’t say you don’t know about it, but he heard it anyway.
“What? Why wouldn’t I-“
“Because you don’t read anything.”
“I do read things.”
Aderyn gave Rafe a look that sat somewhere between condescending and surprised. “You do?”
Rafe stepped forwards on the rooftop, his arms tucked behind himself as he looked up at the sky.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Aderyn’s carefully-cultivated look of condescension and surprise was shattered down the middle, her pale eyebrows raised. “Rafe, that is both quite lovely and completely not like you at all. Wherever did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear it,” he said, “I read it.”
“Do you understand it?”
Rafe’s eyes screwed up tight, his cheeks rising and the heat rising in his throat. “What the f-“
Aderyn’s finger pressed against his lips. “Shh. I mean that. Do you understand what it means?”
Remembering that he’d seen that hand propel a blade thirty cims long up through a man’s skull, Rafe managed to keep a check on his outrage for long enough. “Yes.” He said, confidently.
“Then can you explain it to me?”
Rafe leant back, confused. He had definitely lost the thread of this conversation.
“Because,” Aderyn said, and he could see her adjusting her expression. “You say it like it means something very large, and I don’t know what that is.”
Rafe stopped abruptly. He leant forwards, putting his weight on his knee, and his elbow on that knee, looking at Aderyn more closely than he ever had before. “Aderyn?”
Then his mind swerved back on track. “… Why didn’t Praefoco yell for guards after you killed Tully?”
Aderyn sat back slightly at that. She averted her gaze, adopting a thoughtful expression, putting her fingertip on her chin just like Rafe did. It had been only a tiny window of time, a few moments, enough for a few short words – but he had used those to talk to her.
“Right.” Rafe said, looking at her confused look. Straightening up, he smoothed his shirt with one hand, licking his lip nervously. “I think the guards aren’t looking for us – it’s been a few days, and all – but I’m… I’m worried.”
Aderyn looked at him again, those brilliant blue eyes focusing. “Why did you lie about the murders?”
“I didn’t – what, wait, why are you bringing that up now?”
“Because you’ve never answered it.” She said, and her tone was obstinate.
Rafe turned around and went to the edge of the roof, grumbling. “It’s … it’s a poem about a society that falls apart because it spreads too wide. Nstuff. It’s about… it’s probably not about the Empire, but it’s like it’s about the Empire.”
Aderyn’s nostrils flared and she pouted in an unnervingly ladylike fashion. “That was an answer, Rafe, but it wasn’t an answer to my question.”
Rafe turned and drew himself back, waving one arm. “I…” he shook his head and stormed past her, over the crest of the roof. “Forget it. I’m going to get some sleep and see if I’m allowed to go home tonight.”
Aderyn slowly turned and watched him leave, her final question spoken to his back. “Home?”
Two weeks after the unfortunate end of some noble or other, the masks were gathered to speak. A suite of white faces in a dark room. Everyone knew who everyone else was – but to say that would be to imply all the secrecy was unnecessary. That would be rude.
“Well, he’s undeniably useful.” A voice behind the first mask spoke, her tone clear and dignified.
“Why the hell do you say that?” Shot the second, his tone distinctly different, slightly jowly.
“Manners, please.” Murmured a third.
“Oh, stuff it. What do you mean useful? He’s told us nothing new. We know Yull is a good leader, we know he’s well liked.”
“Yes, but – and this is important – he’s well liked by someone who hasn’t served under him for years.” The first continued.
“So? That’s not a point in his favour.”
“General Yull Bachthane has overseen military operations against the Djansk colonies, in the Holy Land, in the Rus Wastes, he broke the siege of Ranthelm, he pushed the Norsk back out of Hadrian, and he helped break the Republican uprising on the Emralt. Yull has been serving as a general for as long as your average soldier has been alive, and he’s been doing it quite well, clearly.” A deep breath, and she continued. “Quite frankly, there are very few men working for the crown who haven’t served under him. Hadrians love him because he’s not Timoritian. The Emralt love him because their Taoiseach loves him, and he stood against Timoritia during the Republican riots. The people of the countrysides love him because half of them have a relative who served under him, and the Lleywa love him because he’s Lleywa too. Quite frankly, I’m surprised, he’s almost too perfect for the job.”
“I cannot lie,” a fourth voice said. “That business in Emralt bothers me.”
“Why?” The second asked. This was meant to be about Marko Fiver, but somehow here they were talking about Yull again.
“He sided with the locals, against Vox. Tiber lost quite a bit of power in Emralt then.”
“And the Emralt are being fed now thanks to farms in Tiber. Our economic leash grows tighter.” A fourth voice said. “I doubt Yull realises that, but even his pigheaded moments are useful. You just have to know that when he’s put in a corner, he’ll break through a wall.” The second voice was clearly sick of arguing about Yull’s viability.
“… All this, and a claim to the throne too.” The first voice murmured.
Everyone fell silent. That was the really juicy part, and they all knew it.
Had any one noble family found this little thread, it’d have been a trump card. They all knew it, too. However they did it, they’d have called Yull back, kayem by kayem, to the city, even if they’d had to shackle him to do it, and they’d have cultivated him. The man was married, so an heir could be on the cards quickly too – and even if they didn’t own and control the father, they could definitely entrench themselves in the lives of the son. A son who would almost certainly be completely lost in the sea of Timoritia politicking. Lleywa was a nation which lacked the nobility of Tiber – the people received knighthoods and duchies for doing things rather than being born. This was slightly better than the situation in Hadrian, at least, where you could have a title if you killed someone else who had one.
“He’s wealthy, isn’t he?” Said that third voice, speculative unto the darkness.
“No,” the second said.
“Surely not – if he was at the siege of Ranthelm?”
“Yes, but he didn’t-“
“He didn’t accept the money?!” It was almost a yell.
“No, no, he did – come now, we’re not talking about a Messiah here. But he put it in an estate. Probably just didn’t want to deal with money until he decided to retire.”
“When the hell would he retire?”
“When there are no more wars,” she said, bitter laughter hiding in her words.
Morose silence. “Still not sure the use of Marko.” Returned the second.
“Fiver?” She shrugged. “He’s an old soldier. He’s a friend of Yull’s. He’s a bodyguard and he’s salaried. What more do you want?”
“I want to bring him in.”
“Wait, are you fucking serious?” Suddenly, the boredom was gone and she was the one cursing now.
“Why not? Praefoco’s dead – we have the room.”
“We have- listen to yourself. What did Praefoco do? The man was a money-launderer and a financial asset until whatever idiot deal he had going on with that fathead Cameo went sour. He could muster up the cash to pull Yull back home and finance the inevitable war with Djansk he’d want. That was the point, he was our carrot.”
“What if Marko Fiver was our carrot?”
The silence rushed back into the room. Fingers stroked the front of masks, as that thought slithered around in between very eager ears.
“I don’t like it,” she finally said. “Manipulation is tricky business. You want to say you can control Marko to control Yull? I don’t see that working.”
A fingertip tapped on soft porcelain. “No. I’m saying we bring him in. Marko Fiver doesn’t need to manipulate anyone. Tell me truly, don’t you think, if put to it, he’d want that man, that great man, running the world around him? Wouldn’t he want Yull Bachthane, the Black King from Lleywa?”
A chair creaked. Someone leant back, in the gloom.
“You mean, just appeal to what he thinks is right?”
“It’s a dangerous proposition.”
“I’m sure we can work something out.”