One Stone, Chapter 5

The Vox Coronate, the Voice of the King, stood in authority over the city of Timoritia. It was not literally the orders of the king, but words written and given the authority as if the king had said it. An office originally founded during times of war, the Vox Coronate was designed to allow military orders to be issued to deal with political threats represented by generals. No general liked orders from Vox Coronate – they spoke either of a king trying to oversee strategy without awareness, or a member of the noble class with ambition.

Tiber had a Monarchy Absentia political structure. This structure derived its authority from a King, whose power was divine, and the City, whose power was just there, and when the king could not act, it was the duty of nobles to act for him. Thanks to what most Nobles referred to as That Unpleasantness, however, the position of king was permanently empty.

Many nobles wanted to claim a position on the big fancy golden seat – quite a few too many. Like three fat men and one very fat lady trying to push their way through a narrow doorway, there was a lot of jostling and shoving to no actual progress, and a power vacuum beyond the doorway sealed them in tight. In the mean time, those people occupied themselves in the doorway with lots of pressing, grunting, shoving and a bit of seduction.

At any given point in history, those noble families and their names had grown and wilted in prominence, but so far a full century had passed with the throne empty. There was always someone whose noble heritage was just noble enough, who had the right mix of legitimacy and arrogance to reach out with one hand, only to find themselves dragged backwards anew by the concentrated efforts of the other three.

For now, the noble houses came in four basic flavours, much like food: The Goranges (sticky and weighty and make you regret it later), the Dulfs (spicy and eyewatering), the Rangsts (excessively sweet and prone to inducing headaches) and the Chilvers (old, watery and mouldy).

Popular rumour was that the Gorange family earned their first bank’s worth of gold selling rope and rigging to privateers and pirates. It showed in their dealings, at the least; Gorange banks were happy to loan money, even to whole guilds, and would give extension upon extension. The Gorange would always loan you plenty of rope, and you’d be expected to use all of it when the time came to hang yourself. You wouldn’t know that you’d angered the Goranges, at least not until the morning you woke up with an incredible officious and meticulously penned letter that ended with Lord Gorange is quite annoyed.

When discussing families that could literally put ten centuries of genealogy onto paperwork, calling the Dulfs young seemed ridiculous, but so did calling them a proud military family, which they unfailingly did at every opportunity. A single generation out of step with the others and suddenly they were the young up-and-comers, proving themselves in war after war after war, in which the Dulf fortune mostly was used to hire mercenaries as conscripts. But if a man had a Dulf coin in his pocket when the time came to collect his boots, then that counted as Dulf military achievement. The Dulfs had assured their fellows that they offered the city the finest military that money could buy, and it was a miracle that nobody seemed terrified by that.

The Rangst family were people people, as they were fond of telling other people, and they did so with the enthusiasm and dogged determination to be believed of a serial killer and managed it with the same sort of charm. The Rangsts had been the ones to come up with the idea of investment and shares and in the process exploded what it meant to be rich, and then because that didn’t quite do justice any more, moved on to talk about being wealthy. As with all great innovators, the techniques they developed were employed by the other noble houses just as well, if not better, especially in the hands of the achingly patient Goranges and the bonelessly flexible Chilver, but the Rangsts could hold on to the certain knowledge that it was their idea, and that had to be worth something. It had to be, if they could find someone to buy it.

And finally, the Chilvers. Nobility was often a matter of maintaining appearances, which often meant engaging in public conversations to project a clear image to their peers and fellows about the current state of things. What this most often becomes is a game in which everyone tries to come up with the most horrible thing transpiring at the moment, thanks to the Church doctrine of suffering as a sort of virtue. In this grand social game, known to the servant class as Misery Euchre, the Chilvers held all the trumps. They were the oldest of the families, and indeed, the family of the Last King. Some bookkeepers in the city’s more upscale bars, who make a point of placing bets on games of Misery Euchre speak of the Chilver Rule: The longer any game with a Chilver takes, the final move will inevitably be, “Well, did I tell you about the time my great-great-grand-something was dragged off his throne and beheaded?”

At that point, the game is over and the distribution of the winnings varies. Chilvers love to play this game as it vastly contributes to their public images as long-suffering, wistful and hard-done by nobles, whose prodigious wealth does nothing but allow them depression in comfort.

For almost a century, the defining work of the four great noble houses, and the smaller nobilities that orbit them, was a strange sort of inheritive calculus. There’d been a time when the proper way to take the throne involved raising an army, tromping through the wide streets with it, and shooting or stabbing anyone who opposed, or, at the least, was in the way. Not so, these days; the infamous resistance of the Guilded meant that when an army turned up at the gates they found them wide open and the people happy to show them down the street. Twice had someone stepped into the throne and been casually ignored while the natural digestion process of the city quietly turned their army into locals, then poor locals, then part of the criminal underclass.

These are the major Noble houses, after whom trail the affairs of kings and queens, and the century-empty throne of the Timotiria rests. Through political maneuvering, impoverishing, genealogical manipulation and even darker means, every major figure in every major family has in some fashion or another been declared excluded from the possibility of the Kingship – at least until someone else’s possible legitimacy has been dealt with.

These are the major noble houses, playing their games with one another.

In their wake, tugged along by these tidal forces, are the minor noble families.

*

It was very important to hold these meetings during the day. Night was the time when scoundrels and varlets drew together, when burglaries happened and when the poors drank themselves into loud, sloppy messes to contend with the woes of the next morning. In the dusk after a good meal, perhaps then it could be discussed, because that made it business, something to be spoken of with some sherry and a good cigar. Of course, that was time best reserved to actually discuss business, which meant this business had to wait. One couldn’t do this work during the afternoons before dinner, because one was expected to be near home for such things, and to ensure the servants had something to do. Mornings were out, too – because really, who was up and working before the ninth hour? Madness. These considerations where why at one in the afternoon, Marko Fiver walked down Upping Lane with the midday rain pattering off his helmet.

Marko’s official job title, penned carefully on a script that also included some very satisfying coinage changing hands on a monthly basis, was an Estate Safety Manager. His duty, therefore, was to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the estate he worked. It sounded more important, more graceful, and more palatable to the high-brow ear of the Gorange family noble who signed that paper than bodyguard. Still, it was evident if you looked at him – Marko had the air of a professional hard man, someone who had found a way to purpose a gift for violence.

The helmet he wore was grilled in front, and blended in easily with hundreds of other guards in the City. It served to have something of a uniform, at least amongst the Major Noble Houses, so as to ensure that they could go about their business unhindered. Without it, he would be too distinctive for this task – he had a shock of ink-black hair that fell down to his neck, bright blue eyes, and his clear, tanned skin was stained by a broad, cross-shaped scar on his right cheek.

The rain picked up, and Marko turned a corner, down to the small town-house, no more than three rooms, and rapped on the door, and waited. Moments standing still and considering what he was doing here, considering the nature of this meeting, were moments Marko did not want nor need – they were time when he could brew about how he’d been sent here. No passwords. No special codes. No official secrecy. That would make this something criminal. Marko seethed inwardly.

The door opened, and suddenly Marko wasn’t alone with his thoughts. “Wardell.” He said, raising his chin in a salute.

“Whom may I say is calling?”

“It’s me, Wardell, for god’s sake. It’s Marko.” As if timed perfectly, the rain doubled down, turning from a shower to more of a vertical bath.

“Oh! Oh yes,” Wardell said, stepping back, spreading his arm and holding the door open. “Come in!”

“Know what this is about, Wardell?” Marko asked, pulling off his cloak and unbuckling his helm as he stepped out of the rain.

“Not really my place to say, Fiver,” Wardell said. Wardell was tall enough to look Marko in the eye, and pointedly didn’t. Blonde haired, brown eyed, and consistently unctuous, Marko couldn’t help but be bothered by the way people like Wardell treated him like he was somehow… noble. What bothered him even more was how easily people like Wardell melted into the area around him. It was as if somehow he stood between the world of the noble and common, and that notion did not make him feel comfortable at all.

“Come on,” Marko grunted, setting his helm down by the door. “I know you listen-“

“Do follow me, Fiver.” Wardell said, pulling the door closed, and locking it. It wasn’t ‘Mr Fiver,’ or ‘Sir,’ but it was still his surname. Of course, as far as Marko knew, Wardell was the servant’s first name.

But servant wasn’t quite the right word, was it? A servant didn’t have shoulders like that, didn’t wear those fine, well-tailored leather gloves that protected his palms and left his fingertips free for fine work. Marko may have worn scars and armour, but he could tell in Wardell’s step that he was not the only soldier here.

The room had no windows, and an oil lantern in the centre of the room provided the only illumination. On Wardell’s direction, he moved to stand by the lamp, looking around him, into the gloom. An old trick, one Marko knew, and one guards liked to exploit on outposts. The closer you were to light, the harder it was to see into darkness.

In the murk around him, figures shifted, and a white face appeared; a mask, obviously, featureless and smooth, without eyes and mouth. Then another, in the other corner of the room. Then another, and another.

“Hello, Marko,” said one voice. Low, gravelly, but possibly a woman’s voice? Hard to tell. The room must have been otherwise empty, too, which made the voice echo off the ceiling and walls.

“We would like to know what you know about General Yull Bachthane.”

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