Chapter 1: The Fool
Let an ambitious man dig his own grave…
Julian and Face had endured all they could stand of the summer heat. Despite their pocket’s barren nature, they had gathered enough coin to take refuge in a neighborhood tavern where they could wet their lips with something other than their own sweat.
The pairing of these two individuals was a study in opposites. Face was a large man who at one point in his life may have been described as strapping or even burly. These days, he was simply large. Years of dock work for Turnbill’s shipping enterprises paired with years of nagging despair had hidden his great strength in a deceptive layer of fat. Hiding in the shadow of his size was a dangerous hint of cunning. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, Face was prone to getting involved in physical altercations. Face liked to win, and with his current situation in life, occasional bullying was one of the few places he could turn to for victory.
The other side of this coin was his friend and “business” partner Julian. Julian was fairly tall, fairly plain, and fairly nondescript. Few took notice of him unless he decided to be noticed. Julian often made cut and dry decisions about the oddest points of his own existence for the sake of keeping his life moving in interesting directions. Where Face took sport in fighting, Julian found it in talking. When and wherever possible, he would attempt to “steal” the conversation. It was pure sport to him, but it often led to interesting opportunities both in his business and personal lives. More and more, Julian found that his desire to keep boredom on the farthest reaches of his mind was the guiding force behind his actions.
The summer heat had only recently revealed itself, and the last vestiges of spring had faded away without anyone noticing. When the pair began scouting the various taverns along Penny Lane, the main thoroughfare for this portion of the shipping yard, they found that most of the tavern owners had given up on opening their shops this early in the afternoon. However, one spot was very clearly open. Across one of the unseen lines that divided this sector of Seaside into gang territories was one of the larger taverns: The Thirsty Fish. By all accounts, it was a good place for both food and drink. It had to be, or the gang leader of that territory would have simply killed the management. That particular sector was run by the flamboyant and iron-fisted man known as Switchback.
Each of the territories was run by a gang leader or “Master of the House.” It was an old title that the various gang leaders through the years had bestowed upon themselves in an attempt to add legitimacy to their mostly illegitimate operations. Face knew the identities of most of the gang leaders, having run across them on the docks at some point or another. Julian knew fewer of them, but he had a better understanding of the various hierarchies about town.
Face grumbled as they both accepted the fact that The Thirsty Fish was their only current option, “You don’t owe money anywhere, right?”
Julian shook his head, “Not except for you.”
“Then The Thirsty Fish it is.”
Together they walked into the tavern to find it jam-packed with people. This was not a surprising find considering that everywhere else was closed. It became evident very quickly that the place was filled with gang members, perhaps even an entire working crew from the docks or one of the warehouses.
Face was perfectly at ease in this situation. Julian was not.
“Maybe…we could come back in a little while. You know, it’s not that hot outside if we find some shade, and let’s be honest, there’s no way the ale is going to be anything but warm and…”
“We walk out now and you’re asking for a fight Julian. You take a seat, pretend like you could not care less, and we’ll probably end up with some free mugs because there’s no way they can keep track of a tab here.”
Julian resigned himself to the situation, and they began to look for a place to sit. To their dismay, they quickly found themselves lacking in options.
“What a mess.” Julian was exasperated. Face said something in response, but Julian missed it. His attention had been stolen as two bodies that were blocking his view of the bar suddenly parted. He caught a glimpse of an impishly cute looking girl who was seated alone at the bar in the midst of all the clamor and movement of the tavern.
“Face, just…hang back a little bit.” Face knew all too well that once Julian had spotted a woman who caught his interest that there would be no turning back. So, he played his part, staying back just in case Julian did something to offend a particularly jealous boyfriend or other armed party. In a way, Face enjoyed these little games; after all, they often ended with him getting into a scrap rather than Julian getting into a relationship.
It was difficult moving through the crowd but even more difficult parting people to get next to one of the few companionless women in the tavern. Julian’s slight frame played to his advantage here. Getting himself to the bar had been the hard part; the words were easy enough from this point on.
Expecting that she had most likely been spoken to in a variety of coarse manners already, considering the current occupants of the tavern, Julian brought forward his more charming repertoire of vocabulary.
“I have to say that I admire your conviction. You must be a rare flower to flourish in a place like this with so many weeds strangling the atmosphere.”
He went to order drinks and as he raised his hand to summon the barkeep, she reached out and pushed his hand back down. How had he missed it? There were numerous empty and nearly empty glasses of whiskey in front of her. She did not look up but instead slid a rather full glass in Julian’s direction.
That was when he realized that his words may have been truer than he had realized. This girl was unique. Her eyes were a striking green in color and her hair was something between blonde and a whitish silver color. Her arms were slender but toned, and her facial features were all sharp. Her small body was well hidden by the collection of shabby clothes she was wearing, but because of her size, the clothes draped on her shoulders and hips in a way that was different from any women Julian could remember.
Her eyes were the only part of her that had adjusted to look at Julian but even from that angle they were piercing. She was like some kind of ghost lost in the wrong time and the wrong place.
Julian picked up the whiskey glass and eyeballed it in the manner that he expected a “gentleman” might do. That was when she spoke.
“What’s…your name, stranger?”
Her voice was soft, like a younger woman’s might be, but that inflection…that inflection on the way she said “stranger” gave him the impression that she was a predator. Perhaps the reason no one else had bothered her up until this point was because the other prey knew better than Julian.
“Julian.” He replied. “I’m Julian and you are?…” His question hung in the air.
She turned abruptly at him and declared flatly to his fact, “Well that’s a stupid name. You meet an interesting looking girl like me in a place like this and you go with “Julian.”
That was the last response he might have expected. Getting rejected or turned away was one thing, but those words crashed into him with the full weight of her whiskey soaked breath behind them, and he had nothing further to say.
“You really should find some way to make yourself more interesting. I suppose that you’ll do though…” She stopped before completing whatever thought she was going to direct towards him and looked up and away for a moment, stating in a very odd manner, as if speaking to some other unseen party, “I realize that. Leave me alone.” before returning her attention to Julian.
She refocused her inebriated eyes on him as best she could, even leaning in a bit towards him as if she were going to make a very important point with her next statement. Julian was still somewhat frozen from the verbal assault and the sudden strange turn this was all taking. His glass of whiskey was still sitting in his hand, propped up by his elbow on the bar, as if it were meant to hang about in the air aimlessly.
She whispered, loudly to him, “Did you know that man behind you is the gang leader Switchback?”
Julian in fact did not know that the man behind him was the gang leader known as Switchback.
“I am going to do you a favor, to…you know…help you be more interesting. Well, at least interesting to me…” The girl’s eyes narrowed and a devilish grin crept across her face.
Julian got his next statement out only in part, “What kind of fav…”
Silence. Not just silence between the two of them, but instant silence across the entire establishment.
She had slapped his arm. The direct result of this action was the flight of his drink, from his hand, onto the man behind him.
Switchback, the Master of the House for this sector. Switchback the killer.
The girl waved a little ‘bye-bye’ to him as she and everyone else in the vicinity backed ten feet away from the impending altercation.
Julian took one step forward before slowly turning around and realizing that his life was effectively over.
A very irate looking man turned to face Julian. He wore a body-tight form of light armor that was hidden somewhat beneath a tattered looking long coat. All across his leather armor were various handles; presumably from the countless knives that Switchback was rumored to carry on his person. Switchback was a balding man who attempted to hide this fact by growing out what was left of his hair as long as possible and tying it in a ponytail.
He faced Julian with rising murder in his eyes. The hateful gaze was something that seemed ingrained into the man, not merely a result of one spilled drink.
He breathed in once deeply, wiping some of the whiskey from off of his face and then tasting it before speaking, “Son, on any other day I can guarantee you that you’d be dead before you realized your mistake.”
He smacked his lips as if he were about to enjoy a delicious dinner.
“But today I am in a particularly good mood. Fortune has smiled on me and my boys with the death of that no-good cowardly Watchman.”
Julian’s mind raced…yes, yes…that’s right. Recently one of the gang leaders known as Watchman had been burned alive in his mansion. It would stand to reason that Switchback would expect to take his territory.
“Now, that good mood of mine is teetering on just what you have to say to me.” He slowly drew a long knife from his hip and considered it in his hand as if he were checking the balance.
Say the wrong thing here and you’re dead. Julian looked around and found Face in the crowd. There was a chance Face might be able to knock Switchback down for a second but that would only mean that both of them would end up dead when it was all over. No…he would have to fix this. He could not threaten the man. That was suicide. He had nothing with which he could negotiate. Explaining the truth of the situation, You see, a crazy little woman was the one who actually… would have him laughed at and then killed. She was right…
She was right in that he would have to do something interesting. Inside, he smiled to himself. This would be a performance for sure.
“To be QUITE honest Mr. Switchback, I am as upset, if not more so, than you! That was an expensive glass of whiskey and you had the opportunity to experience a great deal more of it than I did.”
Julian acted as if he were as upset over the whole ordeal as Switchback was. Switchback could not avoid letting out a small chuckle as Julian blustered.
Continuing his act, “Now which one of you savages was clumsy enough to waste good drink and to embarrass the Master of the House as such?” He turned on his heal looking out to the silent throngs of assorted goons, criminals, and everyday workers.
Julian regarded Switchback. “My apologies on their behalf are sincere. Would you allow me to have another two glasses poured that we might avoid souring the mood any further?”
Switchback slid the knife back down in its holster and nodded in agreement, “I think I might prefer discovering just what you were having there instead of slitting your face…ear to ear…like I was planning on.” A collective sigh was released from the crowd and Julian approached the barkeep.
Julian moved close to the bar and spoke in hushed tones to the barkeep, “Listen buddy, you pour me two more of whatever that bizarre girl was drinking and you do it now. I ain’t got no coin on me but I just saved you about 3 hours of work from cleaning my guts off of your floor, so…make…this…happen.”
Several hours passed without further incident.
Face barreled through the door of the tavern back to the outside world, back to Penny Lane and the streets of Seaside. Close on his heels was Julian, both of them were well beyond drunk. Face looked towards his friend and staggering slightly, threw his arm over Julian’s shoulder. Leaning in on Julian, Face’s size nearly toppled them both. “You were good! I mean…you should be dead, but you were good. And we didn’t even have to pay!” Julian pondered whether or not he would feel better if only he could vomit. “That was a rotten way to spend the day Face. Gangsters make me…” Julian’s stomach played a trick on him, promising to relieve his pain but then reneging on that promise, “…sick.”
Face poked him in the side. That did not help the situation in his stomach at all. “YOU should be a gangster. You could do it. You’d be the crafty kind! Trick ‘em and all that. We’d make so much money.” Face was having difficulty keeping his balance. For a man of his size, he had imbibed a considerable amount of drink to get to this state.
They were about ten feet or so out of the tavern and into the street when they smelled it. The scent would stay with them for the rest of their lives. It was a sweet perfume made from some combination of honey and wildflowers. But carrying that scent to them was the distinctly heavy aroma of opium.
A succulent voice followed the smell, “Indeed you would, were you able to rise to the occasion.” This was not a voice that was familiar to either of them nor was it the voice of the girl Julian had met earlier. This was a proper lady from the capitol district of Seaside. Everything about her was out of place in this area, and everything about her was disturbingly enticing.
She wore a green dress that draped down past her knees. The material was heavy, but thin, and it revealed every twinge of muscle and movement beneath it with no room for surprise. Her eyes were devastatingly seductive, drawing to narrow points at the edges of her face. Long blonde hair hung loosely at her shoulders and not a strand of it became disobedient as the wind picked up. In her right hand was a long pipe that she would occasionally apply to her lips in the most gingerly of manners and draw in a substantial drag of opium. She spoke deliberately, pausing only to hold the vapor in her chest before exhaling and going on with her proposal.
“I saw how you handled yourself today.” She blew subtle rings of smoke as she exhaled. “In truth, I own the territory that Switchback assumes to assert control over.”
Face and Julian looked at one another. They immediately sobered up to the best of their abilities, turning their full attention to the woman.
“Switchback is too unreliable or rather too headstrong for my taste. He lacks a certain…” She took a tremendous drag of her pipe. “…subtlety. My question for you is this; given the opportunity…would you, or rather could you, find a way to secure profits in Watchman’s former territory?”
Face wasted no time, “You’re goddamn right we could!”
Julian twisted his body out from Face’s grasp, “No…no we couldn’t! At least, not now. Not yet.”
The woman raised an eyebrow in contemplation.
“We have no money, no one to follow us, and no secure place to set up operations. On top of that, we don’t even have operations! Lady, I may be drunk but I’ve had my fill of strange women and strange conversations for one day.”
She exhaled in their general direction and the smell of the opium began to color the entire event for them. “But…suppose I provided for you the starting capital and a place to dwell. You of course have friends who would be open to such a proposal, such an…opportunity for power?”
Face again wasted no time, “Of course we do. Lady, we can have ten more people ready and willing by tomorrow alone!”
Julian twisted, “Hold on a damn minute man. No one goes around offering up life to you on a silver platter like this. There has to be a catch. There is ALWAYS a catch Face. Lady, I don’t know what you’re trying to hustle us with but any deal that sounds too good to be true, IS.”
She finally stopped drawing from the pipe. “Yet again, you show sound judgment under difficult circumstances. I can see the things that are worthwhile in people. I suppose… it’s my gift. You are quite right. Your assessment in the context of life is quite true; however, the details of this bargain are not so simple. You must understand that Watchman was involved in numerous illegal and immoral enterprises. While I appreciate the income that kind of business provides, I am required to keep myself at an arms distance from it. Watchman is gone, and so it falls on me to replace him. If I should fail in this, then the cannibals of this area will no doubt take what is rightfully mine. Make no mistake, I am not offering you an easy path. I am offering you an opportunity. You will be required to generate income for me and you will be required to abide by the various bribes and kick-ups that the mongrels of this place demand. How you will do this is up to you. Once those things are attended to, the remaining profits are yours to divide as you see fit.”
She resumed her opium smoking, taking a monstrous hit after saying so much.
“All I am offering is my officiating of the land documents and a small amount of capital to get you started. The rest is up to you.” As she spoke, the opium vapors drifted off her lips.
Four large men exited from the tavern. They gathered to her side, “My lady, you must tell us if you intend to take these walks. One of us should remain…”
She cut him off, “Enough. I’m conducting business.”
The men fell back a step and avoided eye contact with Face and Julian.
“This is my offer. It is based upon what I saw of your abilities today. I will expect success from you should you agree to it. If you refuse; I shall not want to see you again. Will you agree to meet with me tomorrow to discuss terms, percentages, and any other conditions we agree to?”
Face urged Julian under his breath, “C’mon man, we need something like this. This is our chance…”
Julian wrestled with the thought but the woman had said the right things to make the stench of a set-up leave his mind. “We will meet with you tomorrow. It may be the liquor talking here, but I think that there is merit to your offer.”
“Splendid. We shall reconvene tomorrow at noon. My men will meet you here and escort you into the city proper.” She paused and released the last of the opium from her lips, “One last thing, your names…I never had the pleasure of your giving them to me.”
Face grinned and puffed his chest out ever so slightly, “They call me Face! Ask anyone who they want to avoid getting in a rumble with and they’ll tell you all about me.”
The woman smiled demurely, but the pride in Face’s boast turned her stomach.
Julian very nearly responded, but for some reason the words that strange girl he saw earlier stuck in his head. He tried to think up the coolest sounding name he could think of, “Remy DeVour ma’am. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The woman smiled and bid them goodnight then left with her entourage.
Face was excited, “Do you know what this means? If we do this right? We’re set for life man! You really came through Julian.”
Julian scowled. Something was not right. “It’s Remy from now on, got it?”
“Yeah sure, I was going to ask you about that, but hey, you’re on point here. I’m along for this ride.”
“Face, did it ever once occur to you to ask her name?”
“I guess in all the excitement I didn’t think of it.”
“Neither did I.” Julian scratched his chin in contemplation.
Out of all the things that had happened that day, that small lapse in memory bothered Julian more than anything.
They had less than a day to prepare for their meeting with that woman. Julian suggested that they work through their options over coffee while they sobered up. Once back at the small shack that Julian called home, each one of them pulled up a chair and took a moment to let their whiskey soaked minds catch up to the decisions they recently made. The coffee was still a few minutes away as the cast-iron pot slowly began to heat.
Face broke the silence first, “This could really be it man. If we get the right people on our side…who do we know that would be willing to go in on a business like this?”
Julian groaned, “That’s another thing, who DO we know? This whole thing smells to me. I know I agreed to go in, but we’re nestling up to killers, fiends, and pimps. We’re no angels ourselves but this is one hell of a gambit. What do we even know about running a gang?”
Face considered the question, “Well, that Switchback guy seems to run his by fear. I’d bet on that being the most common method.” He looked at Julian, and then he laughed a little at the idea of Julian inspiring fear in his fellow man. “I suppose that’s off the table in terms of options.” Face ran through his mind the names and faces of other gang leaders he was familiar with. “Hey, what about some of the others, you know the other quote-un-quote, ‘Masters of the House’? What do you know about their operations?”
It was a good question actually. He always liked it when Face asked good questions. Julian may have had book-smarts over on Face and perhaps even a bit more formal education, but in practical matters Face often looked at things in a different manner that Julian. This was one of the times that he was grateful for another perspective.
The water had reached a slow boil, and Julian began to prepare the coffee. “Black?” He set the cup in front of Face.
“If I have to drink this swill, might as well.” Face detested coffee.
Julian prepared his own drink with a complicated blend of sugar, spices, and other assorted ingredients he had accumulated over time. “I’m only familiar with the leaders by name and reputation. Any of it might be lies or just urban myth.” He crossed his arms in front of him and tapped a finger against his chin while thinking, “Let’s see…There’s Yardly. He runs a warehousing operation on the north side of Penny Lane. Keeps out of sight mostly but is rumored to have a savage temper.”
Face laughed a little and choked down some coffee, “Chalk up another for violence and fear.”
“There’s Father William. He runs his own grain fields, has his own water supply, and keeps his business entirely within the family. I don’t think anyone knows a damn thing about them except maybe Turnbill.”
“I heard he’s some kind of religious lunatic.”
“That’s a real possibility. But yeah, on the lunatic side and directly adjacent to where we would be keeping shop is a couple known as Annie and the Duke. They run most of the illegal drug production and are something of Turnbill’s favorites from recent rumor.”
“I’ve heard of them too. Supposedly, you don’t deal with the Duke, but only with Annie. You only get a visit from the Duke if you don’t pay.”
“There are two others on the west side that I know little about. I hear one is named Sherry, but I know nothing about her. Then there is Fat Franny, who it seems there’s nothing to know. She just runs a successful business and gets treated like a gang leader.”
“That’s the most suspicious thing I’ve heard yet.” Face grimaced from the coffee. “Anyone else?”
“Just one more. She’s a north-sider named Honest. I’ve actually done work for her before, and her name holds true. She’s kind of a bitch actually but only because she’s just about the only one in this place who means exactly what she says.”
“So the nickname isn’t meant to be ironic?”
“No, that’s the thing. She’s got a lot of loyalty built up in her workers. She knows them all personally.” Julian had just about finished his cup. His head was clearing up ever so slightly, but since they had taken to sitting together, nightfall had truly dropped.
Face pondered that fact a moment and then came to a decision, “That…might not be a bad thing. Look, we weren’t really being honest with ourselves when we said we didn’t know anyone who might be interested. We actually know a few useful people who just might come along if the terms were equitable.”
Julian gave him a troubled look, “The refugees?”
“Exactly. Think about it. They probably need this opportunity more than we do.”
“They are dangerous. They will expect equal pay, no two ways about it. Just inviting them in is going to cut our shares drastically.”
Face finally finished his cup as well, “But who else in this place has an actual sniper from Britania and a friggen Raj Paladin in their employment?”
It was an excellent point. Julian rolled the possibilities over in his mind, “Ok, ok…I’m starting to warm up to this. You think quality of arms may best quantity of arms?”
“At least in the beginning, sure. I mean, we either hire a few people we know or a lot of people we don’t.”
Julian took the cups and removed them from the table looking as though he had resigned himself to a decision. “Well, we said we could bring in people and there’s no way we’re finding an entire crew by noon tomorrow. I think perhaps at least talking to them and seeing if they’d be interested would be a good start. Showing up without any support tomorrow is not going to play out well for us. What’s more is that we know those two will keep on our side of things. There’s no real worry about them turning on us once a deal has been reached. I think that Honest lady might be on to something, at least in terms of how to deal with her associates.”
Face lumbered up out of his chair, “There ya go! Now you’re talking like a leader. Pft, by the end of next month, we’re going to be set brother. You and I are going to make our marks and hopefully a good bit of coin too.” Face was more sober than he had been, but his exuberance at all of this was at least in some small part still driven by liquid courage.
“Let’s go have a talk with our friends then. We have a good deal to do before tomorrow morning.”
A half hour passed as the pair walked to the north side and made their way to the residence of Katrina “Grace” O’Malley and Matthew Q. Hawthorne.
The pair lived in a dilapidated house on a block somewhere within the undefined area between Honest’s and Yardly’s the territories. They were unrelated by blood, and there was not even the smallest spark of romantic interest between them. The living arrangement between Katrina and Matthew, or Hawthorne as he would introduce himself to anyone he met, was purely based upon practicality and circumstance.
Each of them was a refugee from their respective home cities. Originally, Katrina hailed from New Raj where she served as one of their infamous Paladins. Three years prior, a crisis of faith, in a city of faith, led her down the narrow dark path of alcoholism. As a result, her attendance to her duties grew lax and her attitudes towards the authority of the Church became more and more confrontational. Her superiors looked beyond her drinking for as long as they could, but open remarks against the Church would eventually result Katrina’s official titles and station within the City being stripped from her. She fled New Raj rather than bear the shame of living among those who were once blood brothers to her. The salary of a Paladin is no small matter and thus she was able to pay her way for a ‘copter ride as far away as the pilot would take her. At least, that was how Hawthorne had explained it to Julian the one time he had asked about her past.
Hawthorne’s story was only slightly different. Most cities in the King’s Realm had exceedingly strict regulations on firearms. Firearms were troublesome in that even the most accurate weapons tended to do grievous bodily harm without instantly killing a target. Worse yet, most firearms were incapable of the kind of accuracy that would guarantee a head-shot kill. Thus, in all cities, the common man and solider had been prohibited from possessing and/or firing a gun. Notable exceptions to this ban were the Riflemen of the Britanian Great Wall, skilled sharpshooters with the finest crafted weaponry in the King’s Realm.
The reasons behind the restrictions on the most potent weapon known to man were clear. Due to a curse laid upon the King’s Realm during the War of Sin, any human who dies will rise back up in a short period of time and turn against his fellow man as an undead monstrosity. Thus, while murder is a high crime throughout the King’s Realm, it is considered a crime against God himself to kill and not sever or destroy the head of your victim. Firearms offer individuals a means by which to do murder from a distance without culpability to the higher crime of an unattended corpse. Most firearms, despite their potency, were considered too clumsy to destroy the head of their target. The bow and arrow also fell under most Cities’ firearms prohibitions; however, wood was typically considered too valuable for such a wasteful endeavor as murder.
Hawthorne was one such sharpshooter who never had much use for the law and had a penchant for acquiring firearms for his own personal use. An unlucky turn of events led to his superiors finding out about his collection and unauthorized activities related to guns. His home was raided, his weaponry confiscated, and his position on the wall revoked. However, the investigators that entered his home failed to find his favorite and most potent rifle (which he had hidden in his kitchen unceremoniously located among a variety of brooms and mops). Once they had left, Hawthorne gathered up his accumulated earnings from the sale of these weapons and paid for his seat on one of the numerous unauthorized ‘Copter flights out of Britania.
That particular ‘Copter flight happened to have Katrina on board as well, and once her eyes caught sight of the well-disguised, yet still obvious four foot long rifle at Hawthorne’s side, a conversation was started that would end in a friendship of convenience and circumstance.
Julian and Face had not so much as gotten to the edge of their property when the front door to the building opened and two men scurried out, barely keeping their own balance as they ran from the house covering their heads. Light poured out of the house and a bottle or two flew after the men. Each bottle crashed against the street and exploded. The men never looked back. There was still considerable commotion coming from the inside of the house. At least one person was yelling angrily and another was yelling hopelessly.
Julian looked to Face, “I certainly hope they’re awake at this hour.”
Face just grinned.
But that grin faded away as the two entered through the open door of the building only to dodge a hard clay plate that exploded on the wall behind them after being tossed at their heads.
A very curt apology followed the plate, “Sorry. Didn’t know it was you.”
Katrina was standing somewhere between the kitchen and living room clutching a man by the collar and using that collar to elevate and choke him at the same time. She had cut her hair such that it was now quite short, almost in a bob-cut. Julian and Face could smell the stench of old whiskey from fifteen feet away. Katrina was assaulting the man in her underwear, dressed only in black panties and a white cotton wrap that covered her top. She appeared as some kind of pagan goddess at the moment, wild and angry.
As if to explain everything that was happening at the moment, she looked their way and remarked, “Debt-collectors.” She then threw the man to the floor where he thought perhaps the arrival of these two new men would give him a chance at a safe exit. This was an incorrect line of thinking. As he scooted himself back up against the counter, the debt-collector heard another crash of glass and found the pungent stench of whiskey falling upon his head.
Katrina had just shattered what was left of a bottle against the counter and was now determined to slice the man up with the remainder of the broken bottle.
It was Face’s turn to be sarcastically detached from the situation, “So…should I be turned on or frightened right now?”
Julian shrugged, “Both?” He knew better than to get physically between Katrina and this man so instead he simply shouted, “Kat! We want to hire you; you and Hawthorne both. We’re prepared to pay you for the kind of shit you’re about to do for free.”
That got her attention. It did not garner positive attention though. “How do you intend to do that Julian?” She looked angry. She always looked angry but this was still residual anger from the debt-collector.
Face butted in, “Call him Remy now.”
Katrina blinked hard and lowered her improvised weapon away from the debt-collector. She very nearly smiled. “Remy? That’s…whatever.” She turned her attention away from the terrified debt-collector and began walking towards them. Despite her less than ideal lifestyle since arriving in Seaside, she still maintained a warrior’s physique, and without clothes on, every bit of toned muscle danced as she moved towards them.
Julian could not help but be slightly embarrassed. Face decided to get a long look in while he could.
With her attention elsewhere, the debt-collector stumbled to his feet and made a break for the door. No one minded except that as he passed by, he snatched a large flat object wrapped in cloth that was sitting against the wall. Assuming no real threat from the newcomers, the debt-collector dashed off with his loot in hand. Unfortunately for him, he came within arm’s reach of Face.
The debt-collector mistakenly assumed that the newcomers would remain uninvolved. Instead, as he passed by Face the large man spun on his heels and landed one solid blow on the man’s lower back, left side. It was a perfectly placed kidney shot and the man collapsed; his potential theft slipped from his hands and hit the floor. As it did, the wrapping slipped off to reveal Katrina’s Paladin shield.
That sight sobered Katrina up enough to calm her down and bring around the usual twinge of shame.
“Thanks…” she murmured towards Face, who merely nodded.
Julian had a sense that things were normalized enough to explain their presence, “Look, I’ll be straight with you here. You remember hearing anything in the past few days about one of the local gang leaders getting killed in a fire?”
Katrina looked a bit puzzled at the question but she had in fact, heard about this. She nodded her head in understanding.
“Well, it seems that there are enough interested people who want to avoid a gang war over the open territory that someone has decided to put a new leader in place of Watchman.”
Katrina was still puzzled, “Watchman? Who are we talking about?”
Face jumped in, “Watchman is the dead gang leader. Kat…we have a chance to take his place!”
Julian tossed Face a sour look for jumping the gun on the point.
Katrina laughed out loud, “HA! You? How? Or better yet, why?”
Julian kept his cool, but continued, “The property owner actually. She owns nearly all of Watchman’s territory and is an outsider to the Valley.”
They all knew that the rest of Seaside referred to the ten block stretch surrounding Penny Lane and the docs as ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’; however most of the residents of the Valley were loath to use the term themselves. By doing so, Julian lent credit to his story.
“Why would she want some everyday thug and his hustler friend to take charge of a major money making operation?” Katrina asked the question that remained a nagging thought for both Julian and Face.
“There’s probably more to it than we know, but for one, she seems to dislike Switchback immensely and he’s the likely inheritor of the area without outside intervention. For another, she probably expects we will be easily controlled and grateful to just have some money in our hands.”
That was enough explanation for Katrina to continue discussing the matter. “Sounds rotten.”
“Undoubtedly rotten but…I mean, what else do we have going for us? If this is some kind of scam at the worst we walk away.”
Katrina did not like that response one bit, “No, at worst we get chopped up into little pieces and tossed into the ocean.”
“Oh, yeah…there’s that. But, that’s why we’re here now. The two of us could round up some jerks from the streets and maybe keep it together for a few months before one of them decides they can do it better. Or…” Julian got cut off.
Face could not hide his excitement, “We show up with a goddamn Paladin and Rifleman! That’ll scare ‘em good from day one!”
Julian was a bit exasperated but he had to agree, “Yes actually. The way we see it, there’s no need to reveal to the other gangs that we are working without a crew at the moment. With a Paladin and Rifleman on our payroll, the assumption will follow that we’re carrying far more weight than we have at first.”
Katrina almost let another objection escape her lips, but instead held that judgment back, “That’s not…that’s not a terrible idea actually.”
Face and Julian exchanged hopeful glances. “We’re prepared to offer you and Hawthorne equal shares.”
Katrina did not have to be sober to realize that 25% of a gang leader’s income was more than enough to live off of very comfortably. She looked down to see the vaguely conscious debt-collector still on the ground clutching his side desperately. She cuffed him and threw him out the front door. Closing it she turned back to the other two. She was preparing a decision in her mind.
Julian sensed the tilt of the situation, “Kat, I know the past few years have been hard on you. All your life was spent training to protect people and at the same time, you were protecting something that would ultimately not stick up for you. Let’s go in on this together and if you find yourself in a situation that puts you at odds with what you believe, you let me know. I need a sword; that much is for sure. But I need a conscience just as much because… I seem to have forgotten where I put mine.” He smiled.
She smiled in return. “Well, as long as you’re asking nicely. I’m in.”
Julian gave Face a nod and the three shook hands. Katrina had not finished all of her say in the matter though, “Julian, I’m going to hold you to that. I expect that you’ll keep your word.” Then she extended her hand to his. They shook on it and the matter was settled.
Katrina looked over her shoulder and turned about the room, “What about Hawthorne? Did you not mention him as part of this too?”
Face chuckled. “Kat, I expect convincing him will be a great deal easier than convincing you.” Face moved towards the center of the room, uncertain of where the stairs to the second floor were, yelling up, “YO HAWTHORNE! YOU WANT TO MAKE SOME GODDAMN MONEY OR WHAT?”
Julian almost objected, but Face raised a finger asking for a moment of patience. They did not have to wait long before footsteps could be heard from the other side of the kitchen.
Hawthorne had descended on to the lower floor of the building and now stood across from them on the far side of the room. He was a tall, muscular man in his late twenties with long ragged hair, and a wide brimmed hat keeping that hair back. He wore an odd collection of various leather based clothes and gave the impression of a traveler who did not know where he was headed yet could not remember where he had come from. Across his shoulders was his custom rifle, its exaggerated length causing him to move awkwardly through doorways and other narrow walkways where others would have no problem. He spoke with a distinct drawl to his speech that Riflemen often developed while speaking or yelling with their weapon shouldered. “What are ya’ll waiting for?”
Katrina regarded him, “You may want to hear this story before you agree to get involved…”
“Nope. You’re good with this Kat?”
She admitted, “Reasonable terms, great pay, possible danger to life and limb.”
“Like I said, what are we waiting for then? Let’s do this.” Hawthorne was ready to leave right then. He had learned a long time back that when opportunity knocks at your door, you open that door. Still, he could not help but refocus his attention on the living room of the house. Blood stains were in various places on the floor and a good number of his bottles of quality whiskey were in pieces throughout the lower level of the house. Also, Katrina was nearly naked and his eyes fixed on that fact for a moment before he regained his senses. “I hope you at least drank most of those before you threw them.”
Katrina scoffed and wandered off to gather her clothes and equipment. She stumbled ever so slightly as she picked her shield up off the floor and then disappeared to a room behind the kitchen. She appeared several minutes later adorned in her full regalia. The red, black, and gold colors of the New Raj Paladins still retained their luster despite three years of neglect. She had been away only a matter of minutes, but in that time she had transformed herself from a vaguely threatening wild-woman to an armored vision of death. The sword and shield hung loosely from her back and her greaves were still in place.
“I…um, was not allowed to bring the helm with me and I lost the gauntlets in a wager. Everything else is still in order though.” She seemed ever so slightly shy as she said it but that was followed by a small hiccup, and the others could not help but smile.
Katrina of course snarled in response.
Together they left the house for the last time and waited out the morning hours in eager anticipation of what fate had in store for them.
Hawthorne treated everyone to breakfast while they waited for their meeting. As the other three had been running off adrenaline and alcohol for the past few hours, the warm food was a welcome addition to their bodies. They ate in silence and a mood of quiet contemplation hung in the air.
Katrina was the one who eventually broke the silence, “So, this previous guy…this Watchman person, what did he do?”
Hawthorne, who had taken to leaning back in his chair with his hat tilted to avoid the morning sun, lifted the brim to see whom Katrina had directed the question to.
Julian found a way to put butter on every available part of the last piece of bread of his meal before answering. “Kidnapping and extortion was the rumor I heard. Lots of people from the central districts like to stick their nose in Valley matters for one reason or another. Sometimes they’re just curious, other times they’re looking to cause trouble. The way I understood it, Watchman was a problem solver.” He licked the last remnants of butter off his fingers.
Katrina scoffed at Julian’s answer. Hawthorne could not help but prod her attitude on the matter. “That going to ruffle those pretty feathers of yours darlin’?”
She was close to snapping a reply back at him, but her full belly smoothed the edges of her reply and inadvertently made it sound considerably more cold and detached, “Rules are rules. Outsiders have no business here. I don’t intend to play a part in hurting innocent people, but you cross that road and you lose your innocence.” She pushed her plate away from herself, crossed her arms, and looked away from Hawthorne’s sneering smile.
Julian spoke up in hopes of avoiding any escalating discussion from the two of them, “First thing is first, we need to come to terms with her.”
Face was confused enough by that to ask, “Wait, ‘her’ who?”
Julian thought for a moment, yeah…her who? before summarizing the woman they intended to meet up with shortly as, “Our benefactor.” He made a mental note to himself that he needed to remember to ask her what her name was. It aggravated Julian to no end that he was unable to remember her name but…I never asked for it. The thought moved to the back of his mind because Hawthorne had stood up and begun to arrange his belongings to leave.
“Looks like it’s about that time.”
Julian muttered, “Yeah, let’s do this,” before standing and leading the other three back to The Thirsty Fish.
They were early to arrive. They had planned on this as a matter of scoping out the area and looking for an escape route should things go awry. However, they were not earlier than the woman’s servants who recognized Julian and Face immediately and approached them without pause.
“It is good that you are early. Our lady is very jealous of her time. We will take you to her right away.”
She must have chosen the largest and most simple minded men she could find as servants. They spoke slowly with considerable deliberation and they carried out their orders with simple purpose. Collect, go, deliver; that was all there would be to this arrangement. Several times during the walk into the central districts of Seaside Julian would attempt to speak with them or to gather some information about this mysterious woman. Their responses were somewhere between slow and stubborn. Nothing of value was learned.
Movement through the central districts meant that they became objects of interest to the regular citizenry of Seaside. Men came out to stare, children followed along at a safe distance, and women hurriedly got out of the way of these obviously armed individuals. Not one amongst them had considered to hide the weapons they carried. That was probably a mistake.
Katrina felt like an animal on parade. She kept her eyes straight ahead of her as they walked. Hawthorne was busy attempting to break the gaze of anyone he happened to lock eyes with. Face loved every minute of it; he could not resist the opportunity for attention. Julian wondered why they had not simply traveled down the back alleys and kept out of sight. What was the meaning of this? Was she establishing them as people to be feared?
He did not have long enough to set up possible scenarios in his head before the servant turned to announce to the group that they had arrived. The man opened the door and beckoned them to enter.
Julian went in first followed closely by Face and Katrina. Hawthorne stood on the stoop of the building for a moment, turning back for one last look at the street and the people on it before going inside.
Face and Katrina almost walked into Julian, who had stopped abruptly in the foyer, his mouth agape. He was immediately overwhelmed by the opulence he encountered upon entering the house. What appeared to be a standard, but well-kept center row house in the middle of a larger section of housing was, in reality, a false facade. The entire row of houses was one massive mansion, disguised as several houses abutting one another. Inside, the walls that should have separated the structures were not present and the group stepped into a massive foyer.
Hawthorne let loose a loud, long whistle as his gaze moved from one side of the entryway to the other. Face could not hold back a quiet, but pronounced, “Whoa.”
The house presented a polished tile floor that shifted into luxurious woven rugs farther into the building. Each wall was split-faced with carefully carved and polished stone decorating the lower portion. The upper portion was separated by wooden molding and the upper walls were carefully painted in various shades of greens and blues replicating the shifting pattern of a horizon across the entire place. Paintings of considerable note and worth were placed in open view to anyone who moved through the rooms. Katrina recognized at least a few of them as being important to historical events in New Raj.
“Ju…” She started to speak Julian’s name only to be cut off by Face, who was not impressed enough by their surroundings to be free of his wits, “Well now REMY, it seems as though our employer has some fancy tastes. I can relate.”
Katrina realized her near mistake. Quietly, she asked, “Who is this woman Remy? These paintings…they shouldn’t be here. If the Church knew about this…”
The corners of most rooms were decorated with exotic plants, the likes of which none of them had ever laid eyes upon, and in at least one corner of every room was a statue or bust. Each of these stone pieces was adorned with a dried crown of thorns that was clearly not intended to be there by the original artist.
A group of three well-dressed male servants were approaching the group and behind them were three maids, all of whom kept their eyes lowered as they approached. Julian, Face, and Hawthorne seemed content to await the greetings of the servants. Katrina decided to explore the adjacent rooms.
She purposefully walked away from the others and began to examine her surroundings. Maintaining a certain level of politeness, she kept her boots off of the expensive rugs; however her curiosity would not allow her to ignore the various pieces of art on display. She got up close and took long hard looks at each of the paintings in turn. Julian was watching the servants approach, but could not avoid turning slightly nervous glances back towards Katrina. She was absorbed in the paintings in a way that Julian had no idea she was capable of.
The servants stopped a respectable distance from Julian and his gang. “Honored guests, the Lady awaits the pleasure of your company.” The male servant who led the group spoke on behalf of all of them. The maids each moved next to Julian, Face, and Hawthorne. “If you desire anything during your visit, please direct your personal attendant in a manner that will satisfy you.”
Face turned to Julian, eyes first, head following after and raised an eyebrow, whispering, “That was phrased interestingly…” Hawthorne offered his arm to the young female attendant who happily took him up on his offer. She reacted warmly to him for the rest of the visit as if mirroring his behavior. The other two kept a step behind Julian and Face. They appeared to be eagerly awaiting any instruction at all from the pair.
The male servant spoke again, “My name is Marcus. If you require other assistance, please ask for me personally. Now, please follow me.” The servant turned and his two associates turned with him, leading the group down the hallway. Julian was almost distracted by the small talk Hawthorne’s attendant was making, “…I would love to hear of your home city over tea. Please be sure to visit me again sometime Master Hawthorne…” It was annoying. He had to refrain from showing that annoyance as he called Katrina to remind her not to fall behind.
“Kat…we’re going now.”
“Yes…I’m coming…” She hurried along and met Julian. Hushed tones of concern came from Katrina, “All those paintings are damaged. Someone cut the canvas or smeared the oil. They look like originals too… It’s a tragedy.” Her concern was genuine. Face jokingly shot back at her, “She probably got them discounted for being damaged.” He laughed at his own joke. Katrina did not laugh at all; instead, she looked back to the rooms they left with a sense of discontentment. Those paintings were originals. Anyone with that many of them would know what they were and would never purposely deface them, but those cuts in the canvas were all clean… all purposeful.
“Please mind your step.” Marcus delivered them to a small room that was elevated above the ground floor by a series of small steps. Each step was approximately half the height of a normal stair-step. In the corner of the room sat a six foot tall hookah. Its cord draped partway across the room, leading to the hand of the woman Julian and Face had met the previous night.
She was seated along a piece of furniture that was part chair, part sofa with half of its high-back in place and only one arm rest. “Seated” did not entirely describe her position on the furniture as she was more laid out along it. Her golden hair shimmered and stole their attention until eventually their eyes took notice of the rest of her. A loose fitting green dress draped leisurely against her form. From her sculpted chest to her curvaceous thighs, the dress appeared as though at any moment…any time, it might just slip down or away ever so slightly enough to reveal an inch more of skin.
She was, in truth, fantastically beautiful; the kind of beauty that one might see once in a generation. She was of a kind of beauty that men tell tales over. Only, there would be no exaggeration here, simple description was not enough. Anyone who saw her would keep that memory to themselves, hiding it away as one would do with a precious gem, keeping it only for their thoughts and their hearts. There was no way in which relating the story to another would adequately explain her charms and as such, there was no reason for any man to share those memories.
Her eyes appeared sleepy; a likely effect of the opiates Julian suspected she was still smoking. The woman beckoned for them to join her in the sitting room. Four chairs had been positioned to face her. One seat was set slightly apart from the other three. The four of them walked up the stairs and the woman carefully observed each of them. Face and Hawthorne stepped up to meet her, each one taking a normal stair stride, which meant they skipped every other step as they ascended the small distance. They found that their steps did not meet the number of steps evenly and despite moving as they normally would have, they were forced to take a smaller half step for the last portion of the small stair. Katrina stepped up one step entirely and then took normal strides for the remainder, leaving no awkward step at the end. Julian walked each of the small steps, but did so at an angle, his stride never breaking the entire time.
Marcus directed the servants to the back of the room while business was being conducted.
Without realizing it, Julian took the chair that was set apart from the others. The woman nodded towards him at this and Julian realized a second too late that he had set himself up as the spokesperson for the gang. This had been the intent anyway, it was just as well. The whole presentation of the woman and this room had been purposeful. Julian was certain of it. He made sure to remind himself that she should not be underestimated even if she was flaunting both beauty and power in her home. He thought to himself, There are times when a boast must be taken at face value as statement of fact. He was sure that this was one of those times.
Finally, the woman spoke, “Welcome.” Her speech was still slow and deliberate, just as in their first encounter. She had no compunction about making others wait on her. Exhaling from her pipe, she continued, “Thank you for working so quickly to come to my aid. I believe that we can place ourselves in a position that is mutually beneficial to our interests.” Julian was prepared to respond; however he found himself a second slower than Hawthorne, who stated plainly, “Ma’am from the looks of your lovely home here, it’s almost impossible to believe that we could be of any help at all to you.” Face and Katrina turned and stared at Hawthorne for his interruption. Julian forced down a small choking sensation from his throat.
The woman smiled a demure smile. “You are perhaps wondering how a woman such as myself could find herself seated in the lap of luxury? Because I have yet to threaten you or place you in a position of weakness, there is an assumption that I may have inherited such a lifestyle from a husband or something to that effect?”
Julian noted to himself, She’s vain enough to openly address the issue. Or she’s clever enough to put it out on the table so that we may move past it.
The woman continued, “I cannot help the fact that I am a woman.” She paused her thought and looked directly at Katrina before continuing, “…and a beautiful one at that. However, I can assure you that my fortune has been made by attending to every detail of my accounting. Even down to the business matters of Seaside’s darkest alleys and most unscrupulous business endeavors, I am unrelenting in my pursuits.” She gradually sat up as she said these things, leaning forward with an intensity of speech that acted as guarantor of her words.
Hawthorne corrected himself, “I apologize ma’am. It was not my intention to belittle your obvious and considerable stature in this city.”
Julian thought to himself, Not bad Hawthorne…not bad at all. You got an explanation as well as an important bit of information.
He took the opportunity to interject himself into the conversation before any further missteps might be had, “Please be assured that we are grateful for the opportunity you are presenting. As I’m sure you’re aware, we would be remiss in our duties if we did not place every one of our arrangements under the looking glass of skepticism. The south docks of Seaside are a difficult place to live if you don’t take any and all offers with a pinch of salt.”
The woman nodded in contented agreement. She seemed to relax ever so slightly.
Julian took this as a sign to introduce his partners in all of this. “You of course remember both Face as well as myself from last night’s encounter. Now, I know I said that we could provide you with a larger number of associates, but after we discussed the issue, Face and I came to what we see as a better arrangement.” He looked towards Katrina and Hawthorne. “Please allow me to introduce Katrina O’Malley and Matthew Hawthorne. They are friends of ours and both of them bring unique and valuable skills to our organization. Katrina is a retired paladin from the City of New Raj.”
Katrina stood and bowed respectfully to the woman. As was planned, she said nothing.
“Hawthorne here is formerly of Britania where he was one of their feared Riflemen, stationed upon their great western wall.” Hawthorne did not stand, but he did lean in closer and tip his hat to the woman along with a knowing little wink.
“To be straight with you, we figure that quality of arms is going to be of more value to us than quantity. We have the option of hiring numerous strangers and dock workers as paid enforcers, but without having proven ourselves, it’s just as likely that those kinds of men would double-cross us or at best work halfheartedly. To further argue the point, I believe that only Turnbill himself has in his employment any professional soldiers. We believe that this can make a name for our gang from the outset and perhaps ease the transition without needless bloodshed.”
The woman looked directly at Julian.
“I am, above all things, a very good judge of character…”
I shall have only the finest…
“I knew I chose the right man for this job.”
You shall make an outstanding tool.
Julian shook his head, his ears were ringing for some reason, and for a brief moment he thought that he could hear her voice saying two things at once. The others did not seem to experience the same feeling that Julian had. “Excuse me… I think I may be operating on too little sleep, but would you please repeat what you just said?”
The others looked towards Julian with contempt; it was typical of him to pursue compliments, especially when they came from attractive women.
The woman raised an eyebrow playfully, but nodded in an understanding manner. “I merely stated that I have obviously chosen the right man for the work at hand. I approve of your decision to bring Lady Katrina and Mr. Hawthorne into our fold.” She nodded again to each one, but casually left Face out of the pleasantries.
Looking past them, the woman motioned to the back of the audience room towards Marcus, “Bring forth the documentation as well as my pets.” She placed the hookah pipe on a resting brace near her seat.
Marcus quickly responded to her command, “At once my lady.” He motioned and the papers were handed over to him by one of the maids. Another maid was saddled with escorting three large crows, two of which rested on her outstretched arm and the third on her shoulder.
The papers were brought before Julian and the rest. The crows were presented to the woman who casually remarked, “Were you aware that the image of a crow on Seaside’s banner is an old symbol to show lost souls the way home? I have always thought it to be odd myself.” She smiled playfully and then looked to the contract without another thought of her odd comment. “Ah yes, the papers…I believe you will find the terms of the contract quite simple and quite generous.” She fed each of the crows from a small basket of nuts and berries located near to her seat. Each animal was fed in turn.
“You will of course pay Turnbill’s outrageous ‘kick-up.’ This is a cost of business that we share in. However, if you should fail to make a payment to that loathsome gangster, the consequences are yours and yours alone. Outside of your routine payments to me, I shall have no part in your activities.”
Again she fed the crows, only this time, one of the animals did not receive his share. It squawked somewhat annoyed, but made no other outburst.
She went on to further explain the arrangement. “You shall retain records of your activities and you shall provide me with one tenth of your net income. My men will come by to collect at the start of each new month.”
She turned back to her birds and once again fed them. However, this time, she only fed the largest one perched upon the girl’s shoulder. The other two made discontented noises and pranced about the young maid’s arms. Only Katrina was distracted enough from the contract talk to notice that the birds were resting on the maid’s bare arm, without any protective cover. Each time the woman fed the birds and one was left out, they would move about impatiently on the girl’s arm, their claws sinking fresh wounds into the girl’s skin. Blood was beginning to flow slowly if not freely under the feet of the birds.
The woman began to conclude the arrangement with them, “Everything else is in your hands. I should expect to see that as we move forward, your ability to generate income shall increase. For the first month or so, do not be concerned if you find your profits are low. I understand that it takes time to arrange a partnership as well as it does to conspire towards takeovers.”
One of the other maids moved towards the one holding onto the crows and held a small towel under her arm to prevent blood from falling to the floor. The woman, upon seeing this, dismissed all of them to continue the contract talk.
“There are two other matters that must be discussed. The first is the matter of your councilor. This person will be your liaison between your operation and the other operations in town. Find someone agreeable to both Turnbill and the other gang leaders. Within the next two days, I will arrange for two of my trusted associates to interview with you. You may refuse them if you so choose; however, I suggest you choose one of the two as you have my guarantee that they will be competent and capable. Lastly, there is the matter of Turnbill himself.”
Taking the matter more seriously now than at any point in the conversation, any hint of her being affected by the opium was gone and she spoke clearly. “If you present to me, good, reliable information on this Riven Turnbill, I will waive your contractual fee to me for three consecutive months. I want to know anything and everything about him. He is dangerous and he is a threat to the continued stability of this city. This information is more valuable to me than any amount of money you may bring to me, so you should keep this thought in mind at all times.”
Julian very nearly displayed a scowl at this. This woman of obvious power just made a catastrophic blunder in negotiating. Why should she reveal the depths of her desire to understand this Turnbill person when it places her in a position of weakness? They must be sure never to attempt pursuing this line of attack on her. Blunders of this sort are meant to lure a person in…but for what in this instance? They would need to discuss this amongst themselves later. He was too lost in thought, and Hawthorne picked up the slack in negotiating. “Well, I suppose that about settles things. It would seem that all we have left to do is sign the agreement. Would that be correct ma’am?”
The woman smiled and gently nodded. She summoned Marcus to her side and he placed the paper work before them on silver trays. Fresh ink was provided and Marcus simply commented, “Please be sure to read the Lady’s contract and ensure that the terms as stated are to your liking.”
Face and Hawthorne looked to Julian. Face pointed out what they were both thinking, “This one is all you buddy, we’ll take your word on it.”
Julian grimaced slightly, however he went ahead and read through the contract. It was exactly as the woman had stated. The language was plain, the terms were clear, and there was little, if any, room for manipulation of the intent of the language. This may not be so bad after all. Julian’s secret weapon was Katrina in these matters. The others probably did not realize it, but her station as a Paladin had required years of disciplined schooling. Academically, she was significantly more gifted than the others. “Katrina, just for good measure, be our second opinion.”
Katrina read through the document, noting and pointing back to earlier portions. “This appears to be in order,” she stated flatly. Turning to their host, she commented, “I must admire your use of the old style pledging for the signatures. I think only the northern Orders still take time to put forth elegant language such as that these days.”
Julian had missed something. He took the papers back in the pretense of being the first to sign, but his real interest was in re-reading this language Katrina was pointing out. It read:
My name is my pledge. My name holds the authority of my word. My name rests on the shield of my honor. It is by this name that heaven in all its glory finds and records my deeds and loyalties. My pledge is my bond and thus I am bound to this agreement.
A quill was handed to Julian who received it with a mild, “Thank you.” Slowly, he scrolled his name onto the contract ‘Remy DeVour’. In turn, each of his friends did the same. Face went last; he had no desire to reveal his actual name amongst his friends. Just having Julian know it was enough. Finally, the woman took the contract up herself, signed her name out of their sight and rolled the paper up, sealing it with hot wax provided to her by one of the servants.
She smiled at them, “It appears we are concluded. I shall retain the contract as it is my interests that require protection from prying eyes. I expect that from this point forward we shall rarely contact or see each other except by means of your chosen councilor and my collection agents. When you are ready to depart, Marcus will provide you with your initial stipend as well as documents that will show the land in question for your operations.”
She stood and all involved were once again taken back by her beauty. It was as if there was a switch she could turn on and off that kept focus of those around her directed in the manner she wished. No one could find anything worth saying at the moment, and so Julian put forth as best an effort as he could muster.
“We will do our best. You chose the right people for this job.”
The woman began walking away and her servants rushed to prepare the way for her. “Indeed. This garden has been stubborn for some time, but now I see a budding of a strange and wonderful new opportunity. Do not forget our terms and we shall all reap a bountiful harvest.”
With that she was gone. They gathered themselves up, met with the servants, and prepared for a new day. As they departed the woman’s mansion, Julian stopped and quietly cursed himself for yet again failing to ascertain her name. How could they have gone through all of that for him to commit such a serious failure? “I think perhaps we may have been rash in making this decision. Everything is in place, but some how…I have a nervous feeling in my stomach.”
Katrina looked off into the distance and smacked her lips completely ignoring Julian’s worry. Hawthorne recognized that sound as meaning that she was about to go out in search of her first drink of the day. He let a small sigh escape his chest and despite his concern over Katrina, shot a reassuring smile toward Julian, “Fortune favors the bold my friend.”