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A Teacup For a Crown

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"So where are we?"

They had not walked long, and Richard had spent a good bit of that in a mental argument with himself over whether it was good idea to follow the marquis de Carabas at all.

"Somewhere you can sleep for a few days."

"Thank you," said Richard. It seemed the polite thing to do even though he still wasn't sure if 'somewhere you can sleep' meant 'I've sold you to the highest bidder and those few days will be your last'. There was no reason to trust him, or any idea how the marquis had known he was there pounding on the wall. It wasn't something that bothered him at the time, but twenty minutes of plodding through the tunnels, mud grabbing at his shoes with thick sucking sounds with every step, had given him plenty of opportunity to think. He'd seen no point in asking when they were wandering, but they'd just walked up an incline out of the mud and into a vaulted cavern. The far wall was filled by an enormous set of double doors, ten feet tall and wide enough across that Richard could not have touched both hinges if his arms were outstretched. There was an intricate brass door knocker where you would expect a knocker to be, and another larger one well above Richard's head.

"I'm not the one you should thank." The marquis tapped the normal knocker, the one at eye level. "The trolls take their hospitality very seriously, by the way. Refuse nothing you're offered and you should make it out alive."

"You're joking, right?"

The marquis just looked at him.

"Wait," said Richard. "Trolls?"

"Yes. Long-standing friends of the House of the Arch. You've met one of them, I believe."

And at that the door swung open and brought a gust of wind rich with the stench of the rotting mud. Richard had to look up sharply to see the face of the man who answered it. "Why hello there!" he boomed. "De Carabas! Ah, and this must be the Warrior, the marquis here said you'd be arriving soon. Been travelling have you?"

"You could say that," Richard said.

"Come in, Come in!"

"I beg your pardon, Furnival," the marquis said smoothly, bowing slightly, "but I have some other business to attend to."

"Ah, well. Another time. I'll be seeing you then." A meaty hand clapped onto the back of Richard's neck like thunder and pulled him in to the foyer. "Mayhew, isn't it?

"Yes," Richard answered finally, distracted. He didn't necessarily remember what it had been like to be a small child walking down halls and through doors that were too big, but he imagined it was something like this. Furnival walked Richard down the hallway like that, his hand like a yoke of iron laid across Richard's shoulders, heavier than flesh should be. "Well, any friend of the Lady Door's is a friends of ours, sir, indeed."

"Acton sir, I thought you'd want to know our other guest had arrived."

"Excellent, thank you. It's a pleasure," said Acton warmly. He waved, but did not shake Richard's hand. He was holding a tool in each hand: a punch that looked like a cone in his left, the handle thick enough to fit his hand and the point no bigger around than a pencil, and a ball peen hammer with a grooved handle was clasped in the pincher that replaced his right hand.

A long bench ran the length of the wall, level with Richard's chest. A row of tools with the same handles sat on it. So did Door. She was kicking her feet.

"Hello, Richard," she said, and her smile was like sunshine peeking from behind a cloud. It was tamped down and hidden at the moment, but you could see that somewhere in there it was bright and gleaming.

Acton cleared his throat made I'll-just-be-going noises. Door put her hand on his before he could leave and squeezed. "I promise, Acton, I'll do what I can."

"I thank you, Lady Door, now let me go see about that room for your gentleman here."

There were question, questions everywhere and not a one to ask, because as soon as Acton was out in the hall, Door asked if Richard would go somewhere with her. "You don't have to," she added quickly. "It would be nice not to go alone, is all."

Richard hadn't thought twice about saying yes, but he hadn't expected he'd be seeing this alley again so soon. "We're going to see the marquis?"

"We are," said Door, "but hopefully we'll end up somewhere else."

The marquis, when he saw Door and Richard standing in front of Orme Passage, did not look surprised. Did not, in fact, look anything but the same cross between bored and amused that he usually did.

"My lady," he nodded to Door, not quite a bow. "Mayhew." His mouth twitched. "To what do I owe the pleasure, such as it is?"

"Raven's Court," Door said, "You're on good terms?"

The marquis shrugged, almost magnanimously. "That's one way of putting it."

"Good enough to get an audience?"

"If I wanted one." He raised an eyebrow. "Why do you ask?"

"Because I need to talk to Rook." The marquis looked skeptical. "It may be the only chance we have to keep him from going to war with Acton Green," she added.

"Why would they? The trolls and Raven's Court may not be formally allied, but they've always been friendly."

"Which is why I need to talk to him."

"If they go to war. . ." he said, looking at Door.

"I know."

"Well I don't," said Richard. The whole conversation felt like watching a tennis match, volleys going back and forth too fast for him to follow. "Isn't half of London Below fighting all the time? What's different about these two?"

"Half of the city is allied with one or the other of them," said Door.

The marquis was frowning. "Some people with both." He looked up at Door. "What happened?"

"Acton says someone in Raven's Court took something from their rooms when they were staying at the Green and won't give it back. He's keeping the crown Rook commissioned and the payment until it's returned."

"And this mystery item is?"

"A piece of china."

"So how do you intend to get this ever so valuable dishware back from the Raven's Court?"

"I don't," she said. "I don't think they took it."

The marquis sighed. "They do like shiny things."

"I presume there was no one else but them and the trolls at the time?"

Door reluctantly shook her head. "Acton said they were the only ones there."

"Then there's no reason to believe it wasn't the Raven's Court."

"Except for them having every reason not to."

"People don't always have to have a good reason to do something. And Rook isn't exactly known for making the most...logical choices."

"Even he wanted it that much, who would risk taking it from someone holding your crown jewels? From trolls?"

______

They got off the tube at the Ravenscourt Park station and walked onto the grounds of an ancient estate. The marquis led them along a garden path that ran around the back of the manor house. There was an enormous stone turret with a plain wooden door in the side. The handle was the tarnished green of old copper.

The door opened out because there was no room for it to open in. A spiral staircase started just inside the doorway, steps wide enough for only one person at a time, and walled in by more stone. They walked up the steps for some time, passing doors occasionally in the same unmarked wood as the entrance, like a vertical hallway. They kept climbing.

"How much further is it?" Door said. Richard was thankful that she had asked before he had succumbed to the urge. His legs had begun to burn. He had tried early on to look up and see how far they had, but the staircase coiled so tightly it was impossible.

The marquis took a sharp breath. "Further than I'd like," he said, voice thin, "but not terribly."

They reached a door, finally, that the marquis stopped at. A small bird had been crudely painted in a rusty brown color it was better not to question. He knocked this time. The door opened a sliver and an eye and half a face came into view, caked in enough black eye makeup to obscure the owner's gender.

"The marquis de Carabas and his companions most humbly request to be allowed into the presence of the Lord of Ravens."

"De carabas?" a boy's voice said, excited, "Oh, let them come." The page opened the door into a room that looked like the patrons of a goth club has taken up residence in a well-lit opium den. Lush, jewel-toned couches dotted the large room and there were perhaps two dozen people laid out over them and each other. They were all wearing black and wearing some combination of heavy makeup. And while they were not all young, they were still pretty enough to make Richard feel very out of place.

There was one tall-backed chair, wide enough for two people who were very friendly but not big enough to be a proper two-seater. In it sat a pale young man with honeyed gold hair and a tinfoil crown. His feet didn't touch the floor. He lifted his chin as they followed their escort in. The marquis strode into the center of the room, to the open square of floor in front of the throne. He gave a sweeping, courtly bow and said, "Your lordship, it has been too long," and his voice was a purr, like melted chocolate pouring over them all. The sheer force of personality was a like a wave as the attention of everyone in the room was drawn in. Richard had seen the marquis pour quite a bit of charm into some of his dealings, but those had barely scratched the surface. The courtiers, if they could be called that, were deathly silent.

The youth took a deep breath, clearly composing himself. "And what brings the Marquis de Carabas to the Lord of Ravens' door?" His voice was low and smooth, practiced–and hard to believe as the same voice that had called them in.

"Is a man not permitted to seek the best company he can find, Lord Rook?"

"A man, yes, but you are no man," said Rook. "You are a shade," he added with a note of petulance, "changing shape and troth as it suits you."

"As I recall, your lordship, no troths were made by either of us," the marquis said. His smile was predatory. "I can assure you that the shape remains the same."

"You weren't kidding about good terms," Richard whispered to Door.

Door shrugged. "They do like shiny things."

"Very well," said Rook, with admirable composure in Richard's opinion. "What do you want? Who is this with you?"

"Ah, yes, forgive me," the marquis said breezily. "May I present the Lady Door of the House of the Arch, and Mayhew the Warrior, who slew the Great Beast of London, master of the Labyrinth."

Rook looked Richard up and down. "A long list for someone so. . .young," he said, archly, which Richard thought was a bit rich.

"I was troubled by news of a disagreement you've had recently," said the marquis," with Acton and the trolls."

Rook's angelic face went ugly. "Those overgrown stone-mongers," he snapped. "He accused me of taking a piece of cheap china and stole my new crown!" He crossed his arms over his chest threw himself back into his throne with a flop and slung his leg over the arm, tossing off any regalness. "It was going to be better than this one," he whined, adjusting the crown on his head, "and shinier, with more jewels."

"Why is why my companions and I are offering our services to help you get it back," said the marquis, smoothly.

"You are?" Rook wriggled down into his throne in a very self-satisfied way, like someone getting ready to watch a good show. "You are," he said with relish. "Are you going to steal it back?" Richard imagined he'd been the sort of little boy who liked to pull the wings off of flies.

"I'm afraid theft is not on the agenda at the moment. We first need to find out what happened to the missing china."

"Oh, what the bloody hell do I care what happened to his stupid teacup? They were ugly little things anyway."

Richard looked at Door, the question as clear as day on his face a teacup? really? and Door's shoulders sank as she nodded. "But someone took it," Richard said. Rook focused on him, laser-like.

"And?" he said sharply.

Door moved out in front of the marquis. "Not from his perspective," she said. "He had every reason to believe you took it and no reason to believe you didn't. Richard is right. Someone else took that teacup, and I don't think it was a coincidence that it happened while you were there. The influence of the Raven's Court is immeasurable, your lordship. To trick you into taking action against the trolls could tear London Below apart."

"You flatter us, Lady Door, and you speak well. But he still stole my crown!"

"We believe that it was an intentional attempt to frame you and instigate a conflict; the trolls are not your enemy," said the marquis. "You have both have been wronged here."

"It's possible," Rook allowed. "But he still stole my crown!"

"Be that as it may," said the marquis, "under the circumstances I think it best that we pursue less aggressive means." And then his voice became the gentlest Richard had ever heard it. "My lord, no one wants another war."

"I suppose you're right," Rook said as he glanced down at the floor, voice low. He looked very young suddenly, in a way that had nothing to do with age, a princeling playing dress-up in his father's place. "Very well. If Acton returns my crown and apologizes, I'll forgive him."

"We appreciate your leniency, your lordship." And the marquis bowed again.

Richard wisely waited until they'd left to ask, "So if the Raven's Court didn't take the teacup, how are we supposed to find out who did?"

_____

They'd fashioned a door of corrugated tin, and while it was nice to have a door it was horribly loud when someone knocked. Richard was used to seeing to seeing rundown people in shabby clothes, but the woman at the door was the kind of ugly that only came with practice.

"This is the House of the Arch," she barked, not a question.

"It is," Richard agreed.

"I heard you people fix things."

"I suppose you could call it that." She was not the first person to call at their door looking for help. Rook had been telling everyone in London Below about his new crown and how it was recovered. Rook, Richard had determined, talked a lot.

"I been sent, like. By Crouch End—" She squinted at him suddenly. "You an Upworlder?"

The question brought him up short. He hadn't been asked in a while. Not too long ago, still only a matter of weeks, he'd been a financial analyst with an upwardly mobile fiancee and a troll doll collection. But he thought of the joy he'd felt when he watched Hunter fight, of the view from Rook's tower, the fit of Door under his arm and the primal satisfaction that came from surviving—really surviving, in a place that required it.

"I was," he said finally. "Not anymore." He'd realized he'd taken longer than he'd thought to answer, because the woman was looking at him with a raised eyebrow and an angry slash of a mouth.

"You are Mayhew?"

"I am," said Richard, because that was how people knew him down here now. Mayhew was the Warrior, Consort of the Lady Door, Master of the Labyrinth. Richard was Door's.
________

"How many baronies and fiefdoms and things are there down here?" Richard asked, later.

"Twenty-three at the moment," Door said. She was curled up on a sofa that was once red and blue plaid and was now only a few shades of dark and darker.

"If you don't count Barking."

"What's wrong with Barking?" asked Richard as he sat next to her.

"They're dogs, silly."

"And how many of them are fighting at any given time?"

"Most of them," said Door, blithely.

"And we've made friends with the Black Friars, a Raven's Court, and Crouch End."

"Yes."

"That leaves twenty baronies."

"Nineteen," she said, and turned a page. "The House of the Arch counts."

"Right, sorry," said Richard. He stopped for a moment. "And you're really set on this? This uniting all of London Below thing?" Door did not answer, just looked up and kissed him on the cheek. "Right," said Richard. "Thought so."

He didn't mind.