Stevrin watched, arms crossed. How he could stand there as the Chancellor spoke and not want to rush the platform and strangle the man was beyond him. He suspected he might have simmered a modicum with age and experience, just enough to merely grit his teeth and watch instead of acting.
The short, pudgy man gesticulated, his speech reaching a fevered pitch. The crowd responded, cheering and clapping, hooting with the abandon brought by dewy optimism and wide-eyed hope. Gods, if they only knew what this meant, what was right around the corner for this country, they’d charge the stage and rip that man apart, starting with his pressed suit and ending with his entrails. He only wished their enthusiasm outlasted their dying spirit.
He stayed as long as the oration lasted and no longer. He turned, walked four blocks away, and down a short set of stone stairs to a basement room, used usually for storage. He knocked thrice, twice, and slapped his palm once.
The door jangled open and Kullem stepped aside, sheathing the knife that had slipped into his palm. “Danil will be here soon with Kalin, if we’re to do this.”
“Still planning on it.” He pulled a mug from on top of the casks against the wall and uncorked one. They say wine should never be drunk from something so crass, but they were all eating and fighting with whatever they could get nowadays. Bouquet be damned, he was thirsty.
There was little light in the room, but he could still see enough to eye the chalice on top of the boxes. They had put flour inside, to keep better track of it, but he knew that a little water splashed on it and that cup would be invisible. It unnerved him. Things like that were in books and common rooms, not in front of him, not five feet away.
“How was it?” Kullem asked, straddling a chair.
“Same. If you bagged his words and tilled it in a salted field, you’d have a melon crop overnight.”
Kullem tamped his tobacco into his pipe, lighting it with a match and waving it out. Stevrin had hated the scent of tobacco smoke a year ago; it reminded him of his father’s pacification after a drunken night of yelling and beatings. Now, though, it hardly bothered him. It was harder to get tobacco and matches both. There would be leaner days ahead when he’d actually miss the smell. Unless, of course, this worked.
The silence was interrupted by the same combination of raps. Stevrin got the door this time, letting his friend enjoy his pipe. Two men entered, both blond and blue-eyed with patrician noses. They claimed their grandfather was a bastard of some noble, a drop of Magrithon’s blood in their veins. Stevrin had never held it against them. “It’s crowded in the plaza,” Danil said.
“You’d think our countrymen would have better sense.”
“Well, they all can’t be like you, Stevrin.”
“I’m not a bloody genius, Kalin. They should know that if you kill the king and his family, terrible things will happen. There is no way Kalronism is going to support anyone but the Chancellor and his cronies.”
“Yes,” Kullem said. “Let’s rehash this old argument, like it hasn’t driven us to this point already. Shall we go over the plan again as well?”
“No,” the three said in unison.
“Great, we’re in agreement.”
There was silence in the small room tinged with the tension of anticipation. This was it. Ten months of planning, weapons stored and ready, people gathered and waiting. They just needed the catalyst.
Stevrin tipped back the mug and drank the rest, dregs and all. He looked at his friends, at his brothers, and said, “Let’s go.”
First to leave were the Trella brothers, their steel ready. There were a few reasons why Stevrin had picked those two, but none quite as strongly as their ability to eviscerate an opponent. Agile, cunning, and with impressive stamina, they both had been jei dume, non-noble opponents for the peerage, since the aristocracy couldn’t duel each other, even in practice. There would be no trouble on the way to the warehouse.
In the rear was Kullem, who might linger to hold quick conversations with the good folk of Eri Ranvel. He was their financier, their connector, and their master of good will. He owned several businesses and had been on a few councils. He knew many people of importance and had gotten them everything they needed.
Stevrin might not have chosen himself as the fourth to a great team, but he had discovered much about himself in the last year. He would have said beforehand that he was good at planning and had been willing to be the one to steal the chalice from the palace and offer himself fully to the sedition. He had discovered he had a knack for rousing speeches and coercing people. Donil, for example, the elder of the two Trellas, had needed quite a bit of convincing before he joined.
Those two, Kullem, and he had rounded each other out and balanced strengths against weaknesses. This was going to work. It had to.
Kalin opened the door to the warehouse for them, giving a grin and a slight mocking bow. With his jei dume uniform of folded-down leather boots, a long coat, and a tricorn hat he painted the picture of a man ready for glory. The rapier and main-gauche at his sides helped punctuate their stage presence, as did his brother’s similar dress and epee de cour, Kullem’s chain mail and battle ax, and Stevrin’s own mail and saber. This had been key. Stevrin knew they had to look the part in order to woo the audience.
It began when they turned and began walking to the assembly. Ten dozen men quieted as they approached, drinking in the four men radiating bravado, power, and sheer determination. The Trella brothers checked their weapons casually, Kullem rested on the pommel of his ax, and Stevrin took front center. “Gentlemen, it’s good to see you again.”
In all honesty, it was disappointing. Four months ago he had commanded rooms of near a thousand. Infighting in the quartet had led to diminishing returns, he knew that, but he had always hoped for a fresh swell in numbers. A score over a hundred would be enough. It would have to be.
All eyes were on him. “Today is a day of culmination, the moment when the drink touches your lips, when the clouds break and the sun shines again, when you spy land again at sea. Today is a day when we will cease to mourn for the our kings and princes, the Alscaines, and forge our pain into a drive, a need to make the Kalronists pay.
“But, my friends, this is not about revenge.” He saw a few confused looks. Reasonable, since he’d always used reparations as a point in previous speeches. “No. Revenge speaks only to the past. Today we will look forward to tomorrow, to a day where the lies and broken promises and tyranny of the Chancellor and his men will be destroyed, crushed under our weight. For we are strong together and we can overcome the wrongs of today for the brighter future. Who’s with me?”
“I am!” yelled a few men.
“The gods need to hear us, men! They need to hear us so that they will see we are fighting their fight, righting the wrongs. I said who’s with me?”
“I am!” the room echoed.
“Who is willing to show those men what happens when they destroy the monarchy, Arvonne itself, with the better end of a blade?” He gestured for the Trellas to start handing out weapons.
“Who will join me in storming the gates where the false king sits, slit his throat, and win back our country?”
“Who is willing fight until they are all dead?”
“Then we go, men! We go to take back what is ours!”
The was a roar deafening despite the small size of the group. Stevrin walked through the parting middle, his friends behind him. Men reached out to clasp his arm or shoulder and he did the same back. Some leaders felt it was beneath them to be touched by their followers; Stevrin thought a touch in exchange for the risk was so little. Some of these men might not just be giving up their lives but the lives of their families.
Yaguer was standing near the door in his cassock of golden linen. “Rousing speech,” he said, locking step as they left the building, his spiked mace in hand.
“Many thanks. Do you think your god heard us?”
“Our god, and I don’t think it’s Mikros you need to impress. Let’s hope Magrithon and Skethos noticed your planning.”
“Think He knows about the cup?”
“Who’s to say?”
“I’m banking on it,” Stevrin said. “You said there was a high payoff. I’m going to need the gods on my side.”
Yaguer wiped the sweat from his brow. “The chalice is mysterious, that’s all I can say and have been saying. And since you chose the group instead of the chalice, I don’t know what to expect. Where is it, by the way?”
“At our meeting spot.”
“You have to release it afterwards. It’s not meant for museums and private collections.”
“I plan on it.”
The back gate to Dilvestrar, the Alscaine’s ancestral palace, was in sight. A guard stood to block their entrance, but fished out his ring of keys when he spied the crowd coming. He swung the gate open. “Thank you, my friend,” Stevrin said.
“The gods’ luck to you,” Captain Corpresti responded. “Try not to kill too many of my men.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he said, grasping his shoulder briefly.
The courtyard had already started to show signs of neglect. Trees and shrubs were shaggy with overgrowth and the fountain’s waters were murky with algae. With confidence Stevrin crossed the stones and pushed open the door. He had a man hold it while he led the charge.
The hallway was empty, as was the inner courtyard, also decrepit with weeds and grass growing around the fish basin with abandon. The men oozed forwards through the arches, crossing to the next hallway where a wide-eyed guard opened his mouth to yell. Donil’s sword caught him above the Adam’s apple, angled into his brain, his throat filling with blood that gargled his words and dripped from the corners of his mouth before he sunk to his knees.
They continued on ’til they finally opened a door to a grand room. This was the autumn dining room, none of the finery of color and cloth hanging that Stevrin remembered from when he worked at the palace as an attendant. He pointed to a door across the way what would take them to the throne room via the main foyer.
He stopped for a moment, thinking he heard something. It was quiet and empty, not at all as it had once been, but they likely had less then an ideal number of people caring for the palace. He had heard from a number of people that most rooms were blocked off and unused. Silent was something to be expected.
But it wasn’t silent. Behind them he heard metal on metal, the unmistakable sound of fencing. The men around him turned to see what the commotion was and missed guards filing in the door Stevrin had point at. “At arms!” he yelled, engaging with the closest man.
The rear of the group finally made it through the double doors, several actively hacking away at armored men bursting against their ranks.
They were in a vice, one hundred and twenty men in a room thirty by seventy, fighting against another hundred on either side. What could he do? Where could they go? He stood on the table, his muddy boots dirtying what he considered sacred soil. “Men! All to the front! Eyes on the rear!”
Hopefully the Trellas could bottleneck the guards at the doors while the rest surged forward. He jumped off the table, kicking a guard in a gambeson hard enough to send him sprawling back into another man. He was run through by his comrade’s sword in full display of the men. Stevrin took advantage of the scene. “Look! They can’t fight! They’re just men dressed as guards!”
He thought it unlikely, but the demoralizing words had an affect. His men roared and organized against the wave. The palace guards were forced back to the mezzanine overlooking the foyer, cleaving their front when they split to the left or right.
Stevrin dove in, taking on a green fighter whose expression showed that his spirit was about broken. He put on his most menacing face and snarled at him, the boy’s eyes widening. “Who is willing to give it all for our king?”
“I am!” the men cried.
He kicked the fighter into the railing. The guard hit it with the back of his legs, failing to regain his balance before tumbling over the edge. The man next to him tried to reach out at the last second for his arm and spent a precious second looking over the railing at his comrade, who must have been looking almost as pretty as the moment he was born. When he looked back, Stevrin was already drawing his sword across his neck.
Onto the next, his fatigue and pain dull, distant worries, he took the high ground and pushed men two at a time to fight down the stairs. His men cheered him on, chanting his name, watching his back and sides. “Stevrin!” he heard Kullem yell. “The rear is weakening!”
“Tell them to go to the left and circle around!”
A minute later the mezzanine swelled with his fighters, who met with the guards moving up the stairs on the opposite side. He saw Kalin attack with gusto, on his second wind after holding back the rear guard with his brother.
Both sides made it to the bottom floor at roughly the same time and it was then their turn to pinch the force against them. The guards were down to forty or so men. They had them.
Stevrin let his men take over, giving himself a break from fighting as he skirted around the group. The throne room was just ahead. The Chancellor would be there, or close by. It was just a matter of…
A steel-armored guard entered the room, followed by another and another. Stevrin held up his saber and was going to rush in until he saw what they carried. One had a halberd, another a poleaxe, and the third a glaive. There was a thin possibility he could get between the plates and take one out, but not if they were working in tandem. And not if there were a lot.
“Fall back!” he yelled and began moving back to the stairs. They needed to regroup and armor was notoriously hard to walk up stairs in. Kalin turned and saw the armored men, then joined Stevrin as they gathered the men behind them, pushing up the stairs.
They had made it back up to the mezzanine when they saw more guards appear in chain mail, plate, and even suits of armor. He looked at Kalin, who had a worried yet determined look on his face, and thought what he was likely thinking: how do we get through them?
Or around. “Come on!” he said, grabbing Kalin’s sleeve. There was a hidden passage through the kitchens so that the help wouldn’t be seen carrying food throughout the palace. It led to the main kitchens below, which was only a few rooms from where the Chancellor should be.
They headed left and were close to the door when a man stepped through. Without a thought, without a chance to back off, he ran Kalin through with his epee. Kalin’s sword was half drawn before he backed away. “Go!” Stevrin yelled to him and shoved him towards the back.
The man who stood there, also in jei dume gear, was far more skilled than he was. The plated men who stood behind him made it quite clear that this way was cut off. He turned and saw more men filing through.
How could there be so many? The Chancellor was supposed to be here alone, no one visiting, no meetings scheduled. There should have been fifty guards, at most, in regular attire.
Kullem grabbed his arm. “It’s lost,” he said.
“No, I can find a way.”
“It’s lost, Palerno. You would be throwing men onto skewers.”
“If they can hold off while I find a way…”
“Peace. You told me to tell you if I thought it was lost. It’s lost.”
Stevrin’s shoulders hung. So close. He gritted his teeth. “Retreat!” he yelled and the men around him looked up and around. “Retreat!”
He helped keep the guards at bay while as many men as possible fled through the courtyards. Most of the rear guards had been slaughtered, but quite a few still fought, trying to stop the rush of men from escaping.
Stevrin was shaking from the din of battle or the pain. He waited ’til he knew his men were out, then ran back, dashing through streets, hooking corners, arriving at the room in the cellar. He fiddled with his keys and unlocked the door, locking it behind him. The lamp still burned in an empty room.
What had gone wrong? he asked himself over and over again.
Kullem was the next to arrive, stomping down the stairs and flopping heavily into the chair. He said nothing. Stevrin didn’t, either.
After fifteen minutes there was shouting and pounding on the door. Stevrin opened it to see Donil underneath Kalin’s arm, all but dragging him down the stairs. “Dammit, Stevrin, what happened?” Donil asked, putting his brother gently on the floor.
“He was run through in a surprise attack.” Even in the pale light he could see how pale Kalin was, his white shirt glistening and almost black.
“I know that, you idiot! I mean what happened to the coup? How did we get so overwhelmed?”
“Why would they have so many waiting, and in armor?”
“It’s because we were betrayed.”
Kullem’s words hung in the air like his pipe smoke. Stevrin and Donil both turned to look at him. “Who?”
“Not one of us. I doubt one of the men. Not the priest, either. Could be one of the men who decided not to join us today. My money, though, is on the guard captain who had no clue that we were walking into a trap.”
“Corpresti?” The thought boggled Stevrin’s mind. “No. He gave us so much help in planning this. The conversations we had…he…he approached me! Well before I ever found the chalice or you three! I’ve known him for years…”
“I’m not saying he was always planning on turning. Leverage can move mountains.” He puffed on his pipe. “Did you ever meet Corpresti here?”
“Then it’s only a matter of time.”
Stevrin hung his head in his hands. There was no sound save the labored and gurgled breath of Kalin, who rested in his brother’s arms. Donil spoke quietly to him, telling tales from their childhood. “Remember that time Prince Aubin flat-out won that fight against Trebark?” He laughed. “I thought his eyes were going to fall out of his head.”
“So…proud…” Kalin said.
“We were. We were so proud of those boys. Nothing like the student beating his teacher. Gods, they would have made fine rulers.”
“No, but we could’ve removed the men who thought they were better than them.”
It took Stevrin a few moments to realize that the gargled breaths had stopped.
“Damn you, Palerno,” Donil said as the door was battered down.
* * *
“Visitor,” the guard said.
Stevrin looked up, wondering if the chains around his ankles would stretch far enough to the bars. He tried to stand, slipped, and used his dirty hands to climb the wall. A few shambled steps later and he got his answer: almost.
A man with short-cropped hair and beard stepped into view, unadorned save his golden cassock. “You’re looking much worse than the last time I saw you, Stevrin.”
He searched the man’s eyes for a few moments, then said, “Tell me it wasn’t you.”
Yaguer’s eyebrows raised. “You think I betrayed you? That I even could? My god would strike me down where I stand! No, my friend, I didn’t betray you or your quartet. I believed in your cause,” he lowered your voice, “and I still do.”
“So why are you here?”
“Mercy, mainly. Did you want to talk? Is there something I can get you?”
“Keys, a knife, and maybe a juicy steak.”
“I could ask for better food.”
“And why would they listen to you?”
Yaguer folded his hands inside his sleeves. “Despite the major changes in Arvonne, the people and the government still hold the clergy in high regard.” He pulled a stool over to the bars. “You don’t look well, but at least you have your own cell.”
“It’s so they don’t tear me apart. Most of the people in this jail are the men who were with me in the warehouse.”
“Would you rather share a room?”
Stevrin looked away. “It doesn’t matter. I failed them and I failed them.”
“You said it wasn’t about revenge…”
“Yeah, well, I lied. It was always about revenge for me. I hate them. I hate them so badly I was willing to throw men’s lives at their pawns in order to slit the Chancellor’s throat. When they killed the Alscaines, they killed Arvonne, as far as I’m concerned. They killed the thing I love most in this world.”
“Perhaps the best thing for us to do would be to forgive and move on.”
“I can’t. I still want his life.”
The priest bent his head in contemplation. “We tried, Stevrin. I tried. I thought that perhaps Mikros wished for me to help correct the mistake that set brother against brother, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe He wishes for us to extend our hand to the Kalronists and accept what they are offering us.”
“I will never do that.”
“I’m not surprised.” He stood. “Do you know where it is?”
Stevrin shook his head. “It was in our room when it was raided. If you want to check, try Kullem’s wife. She might have the key to the room.”
* * *
“Do you know what my problem is?” the Chancellor asked the room. “I’ve been too lenient on these seditionists. Three times now they’ve tried to have me killed. And they’re getting more organized. More skilled. More zealous. What do you think, Accused?”
“I think your mother should be hanged for birthing you,” Stevrin said, spitting on the floor.
The Chancellor continued, ignoring the remark. “I’ve mostly brushed away the problem. A few dozen men rushing the gates are pike fodder, really. They give the guards good practice. I think, though, my men should learn to fight elsewhere. I think I need to come up with a good deterrent for treason, something that will give the people pause.” He turned and looked at the counselors he had assembled. “We will start by raising taxes. We’ll call it the Palerno Tax. The day after it’s collected, we’ll put him in the stocks. Twelve hours a day for five days.
“It’s come to my attention that Messer Palerno doesn’t like me very much. He might even want to escape and try to kill me again. He wouldn’t have any success with insurrection again, but he might try underhanded methods. And someone has told me that he used to work at the palace here. He might know some sneaky ways of getting to my chamber. The ambassador from our friends in Gheny tells me that his country would be most pleased to buy some of our hardened criminals as slaves. I think that would be good and profitable. My verdict is final.”
Without Arvonne. That was the worst punishment Stevrin could think of. They dragged him from the chambers, his feet no longer working. He passed by several guards, Captain Corpresti among them. He met his eyes and the captain looked away in shame.
* * *
“I hear there are demon-men in the Viyaz,” the boatswain said. “More beast than neighbor. They’re all bone and sinew with sharp claws. You’ll be sent there for sure.”
The crew laughed at this. Stevrin had wanted to grow immunity to the words, but he had heard tales about the Viyaz well before he had ever thought of a coup. His imagination did the work at night, twisting the words into grotesque horrors that plagued his dreams. He got no rest from the worry of the future.
“Sir,” a man said, grabbing the attention of the boatswain. “We have a problem.”
“Get the captain then.”
“The captain is…indisposed, sir.” That would be with one of the slaves. Poor Bernet. “The first mate is still sick.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s…not a small leak.”
He sighed and walked through the men shackled below deck. When he put his hand on a crate, Stevrin didn’t see but heard something drop to the planks and roll. The chalice? Could it return to a man’s life? His eyes were glued to the spot where he thought it was. Too far away to reach, for now.
The leak was bad. Once the captain rechained Bernet, he addressed the slaves. “Tough luck. We’re sinking and we won’t make it to Gheny with the extra cargo.” He counted the numbers then turned to the boatswain. “Throw three quarters over. Leave her.”
One by one their shackles were removed and they were led by knife point to the deck. Stevrin pretended to trip on the way and retrieved the chalice, feeling that somehow it meant he was going to survive. The gods wouldn’t toss Mikros’s chalice into the ocean where it wouldn’t be found, would they?”
Right before he went into the ocean, he spotted land on the horizon. He swam away from a man who was panicking, looking to use him as a float. The ship sailed on and Stevrin yelled. “Land north! Everyone who can swim, follow me!”
* * *
He was so thirsty. The hunger he could handle, but the thirst clawed at him. It made him think crazy thoughts, see crazy things, like a ship on the horizon.
“Look!” Castek said, pointing in the same direction Stevrin was looking at. “A ship!”
So, he hadn’t started barking at the moon. They waited as the little water boatman bug wheedled its way to the island. After an hour or so, the boat docked and a strange man stood appraising the villagers. “R’th kuda?” he asked.
“Are you here to save us?” Castek asked.
The strange man spread his webbed hands in a gesture none understood. Finally, Stevrin approached him. He held up the chalice that he’d had tucked in his waist for days. He banged it against his hand and the strange man tilted his bald, wet head. He pointed to himself, then to the boat, then offered him the chalice.
“Rshketh osshilay nosrawthi.”
The rest of the dozen began yelling when they realized they weren’t going. “I’ll send them to get you,” he promised.
“R’th kuda?” the strange man asked again, pointing to himself. “Nquistlatautha-narlestioshika-ontolislethay-aswaisfar-kessri-susueid.”
Stevrin looked up for a moment. If he was being rescued, did that mean They forgave him? Did it mean he could start again, be something more? If he could go anywhere, it would be home. If he could be anything, it would be home. And there was one name that summed that up nicely.
He pointed to himself, stepping aboard. “Aubin.”
* * *
Stevrin ground his teeth. He looked away for a moment, giving himself some time to think. Had it been a mistake to change his name to his king’s? It had never been a problem before, not in the fifteen years he’d been on Onshilitha. He hadn’t considered it in a long time. What did it mean to him?
Everything. It meant everything.
“Thank you,” Stevrin said after a few minutes.
“I’d have sooner thought you’d throttle me than thank me,” the trirec said.
“No, I like to be reminded of why I’m alive. Sometimes I forget that I’m proud that I’m here, even though my lot in life is meager.”
“I apologize, then. My attitude was because I thought you were mocking the situation. I might not be Arvonnese, but I understand their recent history as dark.”
“You don’t know,” Stevrin said. “You really don’t know how deeply in mourning we were, we still are. The Alscaines were our identity and our future. And they were a good ruling family, too! There was no need for it! No one was overthrowing a tyrant or a sickly, dying branch. It was cold-blooded murder for the gains of a few.” He sighed. “It was the saddest day in Arvonne’s life.”
“Thank you for your story, Aubin,” Raulin said. “I’m hoping to make my way to Gheny tomorrow. Is there a possibility that you could join us?”
Stevrin shook his head. “I am a man who has no past and not future. I will not go to Gheny as a slave nor can I go back to my home. I will stay here, happy and free. It is not a bad life.”
“No, I don’t think it is,” he said and walked away.
It was a strange conversation to have, more so because he was blissfully at peace afterwards. He hadn’t been at peace in a long time.
* * *
The chalice spent much of its decade and a half trading owners amongst the to’ken, who saw it as an interesting bauble. Eventually, it was sold to a Ghenian for a good deal of pork fat and cookies. It took some time before an eagle-eyed connoisseur bought it and placed it in his shop, far in the back next to an inkwell linked to the Alscaines. And it took a little while longer than that before a hapless wizard walked into that shop and set off with the chalice, stumbling into three unlikely people who still didn’t know why Mikros had put His chalice in their path.