“The Bulldog’s Boy”
“Leg’s gone. Fought a cat in the last house. Claw caught me right above the knee, so I’ve had to wrap it up tight for the night. I’m starting to wonder whether I’ll ever see a tree again. This city is all stone and iron. Cold to the bone.
Sift still searches. She’s got the Day Watch on my trail. Coil guards too. It’s got to be further east, to where the big houses are. The rich houses.”
May 5th - 1867
The city was soaked to the bone. A constant pattering of dripping filled the air as the drainpipes, the arches, the lampposts, and even the bricks wept. The day was filled with fog. Interminably thick, it swirled about the streets without a care for the day, filling nooks and crannies until the air was choked and thick. In just the right places, you could stand and watch your limbs turn ghostly, stolen momentarily by the fog. It was an ethereal day. A day to stoke fires and rub hands, and leave the streets to the jealous weather.
It was a fine spring day, by any Empire standards.
It was a Sunday, and a lone black carriage rattled through the streets of central London. Pulled by four enormous horses, the carriage was ornate to say the least. Its wheels and axles were gold-trimmed, and a colourful coat of arms adorned each door. If you looked closely, you would have seen an eagle lifting a tiger into a blood-red sky. And if you’d looked any closer, you might have seen the name Dizali written in flowing letters.
A powerful name indeed, amongst the Emerald Benches.
It wasn’t long before the Palace of Ravens loomed out of the thick fog. The two drivers slowed the horses to a gentle trot and aimed their carriage at a pair of giant black gates.
The Palace of Ravens was a marvel of architecture. A terrifying one, to the average tourist, but a marvel nonetheless. Four giant spires marked its boundaries, and between them thick walls and towering pillars formed the place proper. It was a humongous box, to put it plainly, a blotch on the face of London. But as its detail crystallised out of the fog, it was easy to see it was grand beyond belief.
Each side was a deceptively precise tumble of glass and turret and balcony and ironwork. It glittered in the murk, and through the glowing orange windows, a passerby could glimpse golden chandeliers and vast dining and dancing halls. Ravens cawed in its sharp reaches, watching any passing subjects like worms writhing in the dust.
As the carriage came face to face with the black gates that guarded the entrance to the palace, soldiers poured from the twin guardhouses and surrounded the coach. They had short swords at the hip, shields, and of course, their golden rifles for which they were famous for were slung over their backs.
‘Papers, if you please,’ ordered an officer, the medals pinned to his tall black hat chiming softly as he bobbed his head.
The blackened window of the carriage cracked open an inch, and a thin slice of paper was poked through the gap. The officer stepped up to the coach to grab it. He peered at the scribbled name.
‘Your ring, my lord?’
There was a tap of metal on glass as an eagle and tiger-crested ring tasted the misty air, wrapped around a pudgy finger. The officer nodded and clicked his fingers. The soldiers jogged to the gates and began to push. The window was rolled up once more.
A man was waiting for the carriage at the main entrance, hands folded neatly behind his back and eyes low. He wore no hat, only a long coat that bulged in a way that indicated he was carrying a sword. As soon as the carriage had squeaked to a halt on the marble flagstones, the man stepped forward and opened the door.
High Lord Bremen Dizali practically jumped from the couch to the cold ground. He seemed flustered. Puzzled, and perhaps a touch nervous. He was right to be so. Nobody was summoned by Victorius. Save for Prime Lord Karrigan Hark, that was. But he was dead as a doornail.
Dizali didn’t spare the man a single glance. Not yet. ‘Did she say anything? Anything at all?’
‘Nothing other than to bring you straight here, milord. Nothing at all,’ the man smiled, watching Dizali adjust his wide-brimmed hat and grey gloves. He combed his short beard with his fingers and then tucked the stray strands of hair behind his ear. He caught the man’s eyes at last, and then his smile soon after.
‘You seem to be relishing this, Gavisham.’
‘Why ever not, milord? It’s not every day one gets summoned to the Palace of Ravens.’
‘No. It is not.’
And with that, Dizali was off, striding up the steps as if they were those of his own home. He would not have admitted it to Gavisham, but he had been waiting for this. Waiting for two long weeks. He only prayed he was right.
Floor after floor went by, until he was at the very top of the north wing. Gavisham trailed behind him, silent and seeming somewhat deadlier tonight than usual. Dizali could here his slow, deliberate footsteps several paces behind.
Dizali’s foot found the very topmost step and he took a breath. He turned to his man and pointed a finger at the floor. ‘You will wait here, you understand?’
Gavisham bowed low. ‘As you wish, milord.’
After straightening his hat once more, Dizali let his legs lead him to the great door at the end of the hall. The one that shone with gold filigree and jewels. The one that was etched with scenes of the Lost, from a time before Victorious had risen as their Queen, before she had built herself an empire with wild men and their coin, their blood, and their bodies.
But Dizali was not given time to stare at the beasts and battle-scenes. The soldiers clicked their steel heels and put their shoulders to the magnificent door. It swung inwards into a cavernous hall, one that filled the entire of the northeastern spire. Dizali had heard rumours of this room, but now they crumbled to dust in his head.
The room could have accommodated four tall ships piled atop one another, keel to mast, and the topmost pennant still would not have tickled the roof. Dizali felt his ageing bones click as he craned his neck to see the paintings on the distant plaster, but they were all just one glorious blur at that range. He looked left, then right, and judged it would have taken him almost a minute to run from one side of the room to the other. Even without that aching knee of his.
It was the great crimson curtain that impressed him the most. The giant thing cut the room precisely in half, creating a velvet wall over a dozen foot high. Two enormous chains ran across the room and held it aloft and perfectly straight. Its velvet fingers barely brushed the marble floor.
Dizali coughed politely and stepped up the very centre of the curtain, as he had been instructed to by the messenger earlier that morning. He waited, enduring the silence until it physically ached. When he could take it no more, he bowed low to the marble. ‘Your Illustrious Majesty.’ His voice sounded minuscule in that giant gold cavern.
Something moved behind the curtain, and Dizali couldn’t help but flinch. There was a distinct rustling, as of papers or leaves, and then a deep thud that echoed about the hall. A voice answered him then, a voice that he had not heard in years. A voice that slithered and rumbled at the same time. A voice from another age.
‘What of Hark, High Lord Dizali?’ the voice asked him. He could hear the rustling again, and it chilled him.
‘He lies dead and buried, my Queen. Buried in Harker Sheer, according to his wishes.’ Here, Dizali bowed his head, just in case she was somehow watching. Light spilled from under the curtain as something was moved, and a shadow was thrown flat against the marble. Dizali tried to keep his eyes from following it along the floor. ‘A great shame,’ he added.
‘A good and powerful man.’
‘Yes your Majesty,’ Dizali bowed his head again. He paused for a moment, and then, ‘How may I be of service to my Queen?’
More rustling. More thumping. He swore he could hear a clicking noise, like a clock, or an impatient drumming of nails, or legs…
‘His boy,’ Victorious rumbled.
‘I believe his name is Tonmerion, Majesty.’
‘I want him brought to me.’
Dizali bit the inside of his lip, and bit hard. He forced a sad frown, just in case. ‘I am afraid, Majesty, that I cannot do that.’ There was an angry gurgling from the other side of the curtain, so Dizali just kept on talking. ‘It seems that Prime Lord Hark’s last will and testament was very specific indeed. He had a relative, it seemed, in the Kingdom of America, and his wishes were for the boy to be sent to live with her.’ Until the age of eighteen, when he may inherit, or so the lawyer had said. It was amazing, what facts can be learnt in the dark corners of taverns.
Dizali made a show of scratching his head. ‘I am not sure of the details…’ he said, when in fact he knew them back to front ‘…but it seems that the young Hark has been sent to the frontier.’
‘And what of his estate in the meantime, Dizali?’ The way Victorious hissed his name, dragging its vowels out with her serpentine tongue, made him shiver. What made him shiver even more was the thread she was teasing. The very same thread that he had been trying to wrap around his finger for the last fortnight.
‘Sealed by law, your Majesty. Untouchable.’
Victorious took a moment to shuffle around.
‘You say that, Dizali,’ she said, ‘as if you had it in mind to touch it.’
The lord held up a finger. ‘Your Majesty, if I may. There was one item of business I was hoping to discuss with you, if I may. It is regarding the Benches, my Queen.’
There was a pause, during which Dizali wondered whether she had turned to stone, or turned into ash, or vanished, or any number of things his queen was rumoured to be capable of. So when she spoke, it almost made him jump out of his suit.
Dizali took a quick breath to steady himself, and launched into the speech he had been practising in the carriage. ’The lords are talking, my Queen, about Prime Lord Hark. They speak not just of his death, and its suspicious nature, but of his seat and empire of his own. It seems that several members of the party feel that now is the time to seize power. Now, as the Second Lord of the Benches, the party falls into my hands. We are united, Majesty, but the opposition talks, and far too loudly to be considered mere disgruntlement. They have become unsteady in the wake of the Bulldog’s death. Bold. I believe that there must be direction, and soon, before the opposition begins to get ideas.’
‘What ideas are these?’
Another breath, quick and sharp. ‘Ideas such as splitting his estate between the lords, my Queen. Or calling for an election, in the middle of Hark’s term.’
Dizali tried to hide a smile. ‘Havoc, my Queen?’
‘I do not take kindly to repeating myself in my own chambers, Lord Dizali,’ thundered Victorious. ‘If Lord Hark is dead, then another must replace him. An election will cause havoc so deep into his term. An Empire with so many wars to fight does not need such distraction at his heart. Yet there is no precedent.’
Politics was a game Dizali had learnt to play very well indeed. ‘The party is as much as elected as its Prime Lord. There are some that say the power should pass down the party line, to keep the peace.’
More shuffling. Something loomed close against the curtain. Dizali heard the queen breathing. ‘And what do you say, High Lord?’
The hidden smile was allowed to flourish, ever so slightly. ‘I say, as Second Lord, that such a solution is in the best interests of the party. And as there is no precedent, the royal word is law in this instance.’
‘As it has been since the first dawn,’ rumbled the queen.
‘If I may be bolder, my Queen, such royal words might also deal with the Bulldog’s vast estate. The royal wing might be needed to shield it from those who would pry.’
Victorious paused to breathe and rattle some more. ‘Find me the Bulldog’s boy, and then we shall talk.’
Dizali bowed as low as his spine would allow. ‘My eternal praise, Queen Victorious.’
A part of the shadow moved then, and though Dizali knew not what part it was, or if it even had a name, he got its meaning. He made a hasty, yet respectful retreat, and hurried back to meet Gavisham at the summit of the stairs. His smile had slipped the moment he had stepped through the doors. Now a firm, tight line had replaced it, accompanied by a hard glint in the man’s eye.
‘How’d it go, milord?’
‘Well,’ hissed Dizali, as he clattered down the steps, Gavisham in tow.
‘What’s the plan, then?’
Dizali stabbed at the air as he reeled off each command. ‘It’s time to set the wheels in motion. Prepare the papers. Send a wire gram to our good friend and ally. I want the Hark boy, Tonmerion, watched. He must stay exactly where he is ready. And I want reports too. Every week. If he sneezes I want to know of it. Understand?’
‘Clear as a bell.’
‘Then get to it,’ Dizali growled. ‘I have work of my own to do.’