Tornmile: Part 39

Tornmile
Part XXXIX: The Heart of Government

Brielle adjusted the sword belt so that it hung less awkwardly on her hip. Though she preferred it behind her shoulder, she was used to the weight, but navigating the crowded market place meant that the sword was inconvenient. She had debated about whether she would wear it: she wanted the Captain of the Guard to take her seriously as a potential ally, but she also didn’t want to come across as playing at soldiers. After much consideration, during which Léa had declared herself bored and excused herself, Brielle had decided on keeping the sword close. The three stars and mermaid sigil etched just above the hilt may not belong to her, but they had become a talisman since that night in Ferrer’s compound.

As had the rose. Konrad’s rendering of the emblem – a single rose on a thorned stem, angled so that the flower was high to the right – stood out even now in her mind. That could be because he had drawn it in blood, of course, but even so the tribute to her was touching. It was also worrying: the name had been an invention to keep her from Ferrer’s attention, not to draw it towards her. And Darian. After all, it had been him who had risked himself in coming to buy her back from Ferrer when she had been using that name. Konrad’s message was as clear as it could be; that Rose and Darian were going to bring him down. The lack of ambiguity concerned her, another reason that she had settled on wearing the sword. Not that it would stop a knife to the ribs in a crowded marketplace. She looked askance at the people around her and quickened her pace.

It made little practical difference, of course, since the crowds prevented anyone from progressing too quickly. It was strange to see the marketplace so full since the number of stalls seemed to diminish by the week. Even local merchants were suffering from the fall of the Empire rule in Vitelia and elsewhere. Too many refugees, too many mouths to feed. The farmers had sold what they had extra and they would sell as much as they could – prices were high after all – but once they had sold their extra there would be no more food. The city could not rely on extra from across the seas – the Empire was crumbling and the people would suffer. She briefly resented the refuges who had come to put further strain on the city, but pushed the impulse aside as she remembered that many had come because their homes had been taken from them. Worse, for most had lost brothers, fathers, or sons. Homes could be rebuilt, but there was no salve in the world that could bring someone back from death: families stayed shattered forever. She felt that pain herself.

Fumbling in her coat she found some coins and placed them into a bowl on the floor in front of a middle aged woman. Her chestnut hair was matted and lank about her dirt streaked face. Two children clung to her, lost in sleep, forgetting for a moment the troubles that they didn’t fully understand. The woman thanked Brielle for her generosity. There were tears in her eyes and Brielle had to nod and push on before her own eyes started to water. She looked at the Spire and wondered whether the Council were discussing these people’s plight even now. She hoped so, aside from a few coins here and there she could do little else to help them. Removing Ferrer from the city might make their lives easier – his cutpurses had no care for anyone but themselves, regaining the money businesses were forced to give for his protection might release more money for the relief of the poor, and those bolt holes of his could be used for housing. Even aside from the things he had done to Brielle, he was a blight on Tornmile – he had to go.

She pushed on with renewed vigour and it was not long before she reached the base of the Spire. The dark stone of its bulk looked different this close. From afar it looked like a needle or even a blade pushing into the sky, but close up its bulk and the thickness of its walls was more obvious. The guards eyed her cautiously as she approached the entrance, but they didn’t prevent her entering into the hall beyond the door. She had never been in the Spire before, though the First Hall housed government clerks who issued licenses to businesses and ratified decisions made by the various guilds. It was here that petitions to the king were registered and where the common people of the city came to bring grievances against one another or seek the intervention of the justiciars. The First Hall was huge and circular, taking up the majority of the building. Clerks’ desks were arranged around the outside, each one set before a recess in the wall. These recesses held full length paintings of various events from the reign of Siarl the Great. These all led to a central recess at the far end of the room, flanked by two arched exits. In this central recess stood a statue of Siarl.

He was depicted standing on a cliff top, his sword Durandal in his hand, raised aloft to the heavens. On his brow sat the Knotted Crown – a circlet of silver worked into an intricate design of knots. Three golden sapphires sat amidst the knots across Siarl’s brow. Like Durandal, the Knotted Crown had been lost since the end of his reign, supposedly taken by Siarl’s daughter – – and hidden from his unruly and ungrateful sons. It was said that they had been commended into the keeping of a servant of the Emperor of Heaven until they were truly needed once more: Siarl had vowed to come again to save his people when the realm was in dire peril. Brielle looked at the face of the statue and imagined it coming to life, the eyes snapping open and staring down at her, the sapphires glittering in the light of the wall mounted torches. A hand touched her shoulder and she gasped, swinging round in shock.

“It’s just me,” Darian reassured her, catching her arm to stop her from falling as she span.

“Sorry,” she said, recovering herself, “I was miles away. The statue seems so real.”

“I suppose it does.” Smiling, he leaned in conspiratorially. “I was always afraid of it when I was a child. When I accompanied my father to Council meetings as his cup bearer, I used to count the red tiles on the floor so I didn’t have to look at it. By the time I wasn’t scared any more I’d counted every single one.”

Brielle looked down at the floor; it was tiled in white and black squares with a gap between each set of four tiles. In this gap was set a diamond shaped red tile. There were hundreds of them in the parts of the floor that were visible to her, and doubtless there were hundreds more hidden from her sight by tables, chairs, and the feet of people queuing in front of the desks.

“How many are there?”

“I’m not telling you that,” he said, laughing, “I went to a lot of effort to find out and I’m not giving the information away for free.”

Brielle narrowed her eyes and fought down the urge to punch him. She wasn’t sure what kind of reaction that would draw from the others in the room and the last thing she needed before an important meeting was to cause the guards to think they needed to step in.

“I’ll get it out of you eventually,” she said, “now shouldn’t we go to find the Captain?”

“We should. It’s this way.”

He moved across the room towards the arched exit on the left of Siarl’s statue. Brielle dropped her eyes to the floor and tried to count the red tiles as she followed him, but looking up to make sure she was still behind him and that she was not about to walk into someone meant that she could not keep track of where she had got to. She was pleased, though, that it worked as well for her as it had Darian as a boy – she didn’t notice the statue properly again until she reached the exit, by which time she could only see the raised hand and sword. She went through the archway and it was lost to sight altogether.

Both archways led into the same corridor at the outside of the room. Staircases proceeded up on both sides, and Darian took the one on the left hand side with Brielle following in his wake. The stairs were made of white marble, smooth surfaced, but showing little sign of wear despite the long years since the Spire had been constructed under the orders of Siarl himself. They must have good masons. She alternated between marvelling at this and examining the tapestries as they climbed the stairs. The tapestries were hung on silver poles and each showed a large shield with a sword and lance crossed behind. Each shield bore a device – animals, birds, towers, keys, and all sorts of items on coloured fields.

“These are noble coats of arms, aren’t they?” she asked Darian as they passed one bearing golden lilies on a blue field at the top and a golden ship amongst white waves and bearing a white sail on a field of red below.

“Yes,” Darian said, “they are the arms of the noble houses of Tornmile arranged in order of precedence.”

“Is yours here?”

“No, but my father’s is as he is the head of the house, but his hangs outside the Chamber of Governance not on the stairs. My own won’t hang here until he dies, though I am entitled to claim his arms as my own then. The thunderbolts are only embellishments to tell us apart.”

“I like them,” Brielle said, remembering the sigil on the door of Darian’s weapons cupboard.

“As do I. Let us hope that I have no need to decide whether to keep them or not for a long time.”

They had reached a landing where both sets of stairs ended, opening out into a circular corridor. A little way along on either side the stairs resumed, heading out into the wall before turning sharply to move around the sides of the tower. A straight corridor extended towards the centre of the building from the stairs. Here were more tapestries marked with sigils, including the golden hawk of Darian’s father. Four guards stood either side of the corridor, armed with halberds, though they looked like toys next to the massive pair of double doors at the end of the corridor. They were arched at the top and almost reached the roof, painted black, except for the white rearing winged horse and three golden stars above that were carved from the wood. That had been Siarl’s sigil, passed down from him to all the kings of Tornmile. Looking at the three stars, Brielle’s hand instinctively moved to the hilt of her sword, thinking of the three stars that were etched above the mermaid. The guards tensed on seeing this and Brielle drew her hand slowly away so that she did not appear as a threat.

“In there,” Darian said, “is the Chamber of Governance, where the Council meets to rule the realm. At this moment, they are discussing the business of state in the presence of our king, Yurian V.”

Brielle raised her eyebrows and looked towards the door. She wished that for a moment they would open and allow her a glimpse of the inside. She imagined the high lords making lofty arguments and the king in a flowing cloak trimmed with ermine, the Sun Crown perched upon his brow. It had been made for King Aloysius I, grandson of Siarl, who had united the realm under his rule, ending the civil war that had raged on since the death of Siarl. Legend said that he had ordered a crown made that would represent the coming of Tornmile back to the light of peace following the darkness of war. It was a golden band, set with three sapphires after fashion of Siarl’s crown, but with triangles of gold emanating from the band like the rays of the sun. It had been the only crown used by Tornmilian kings since Aloysius was crowned. Brielle dropped her voice to an awed whisper.  

“How do you know they’re in there now?”

“The golden poles on which the tapestries are hung only have tassels hung from them when the Council meets,” he said, pointing to the corded ropes which hung next to the tapestries.

“Really?”

“No,” he laughed, “I know they’re meeting because my father is on the Council.”

This time she did hit him, knocking him off balance with the blow, causing the Chamber guards to start towards her. Darian stumbled and then laughed harder, waving the guards back into position. Brielle was not sure she liked that they looked disappointed. Darian turned back to her, rubbing at his arm where she had struck.

“That was a little harsh, don’t you think?”

“No. You were making fun of me – I can’t help that I didn’t have the upbringing of a lord’s son.”

“Sorry,” he said and he looked like he meant it, “My father told me the same lie on my first visit here. I was of age before someone corrected me. That was an embarrassing moment.”

“Serves you right,” Brielle said, folding her arms and fixing him with a look.

“I’m sorry,” Darian said again, “but I couldn’t resist. Anyway, shall we move on? I don’t want to keep Captain Severin waiting.”

He started to move off towards the stairs, but Brielle did not follow immediately. She lingered for a moment, looking at the winged horse and imagining the king seated only a few paces from where she was standing. It was hard to believe that the ruler of an Empire was within bowshot of her and she was here with the son of a high lord. Not bad for an innkeeper’s daughter. Not bad at all.

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