Hamelin observed Asten’s entrance with interest. Sneaking into the gambling house of the Bason family had been a small matter, and although his small frame stood out among the other guests, he had placed himself in the corner of the bar, where few eyes lingered.
It was obvious that Asten was out of his element, but he still carried himself with a modicum of self-confidence, enough to convince Hamelin that he had made the right choice in the boy.
“Very well,” a voice spoke nearby, breaking his attention away from his agent, “I am here, as you requested.”
He turned his head, observing as lady Mina sat down beside him, her entourage of beautiful woman standing a few steps behind, shielding him from view.
“I’m glad you could make it, My Lady. I hope you’re enjoying yourself.” He smiled, as gently and as menacingly as possible.
“Cut the crap, Halifax. Are you going to tell me why I am here?” She wrinkled her pretty nose and unfurled a fan, eying him out of the corner of her eye as she began wafting the instrument, “I am not accustomed to being summoned.”
“I’m afraid you will have to get used to it,” Hamelin said, inspecting his nails, “You are mine now, Minara.”
She frowned, but did not refute him. Instead, she said, “If you want it to stay that way, you better provide some answers, Halifax. I did not submit myself just to be led around by the nose.”
“Very well, my dear, I will answer one question of yours.” He gave her another smile, enjoying the recognizable sign of discomfort on her face.
“Let’s start with why I am here. Tell me.”
“You already know the answer to that one,” he said, shaking his head, “Why waste your question on that.”
“You are going to take control of the Bason family,” she said, nodding, “Yes, but how are you going to do it?”
“Is that really what you want to know?”
She bit her lip. Looking from one end of the room to the other, she finally returned her gaze on Hamelin, her eyes hard. Keeping her voice low, she said, “Alright, fine. Tell me how you knew about me; about the night my father died. Tell me why I should trust you.”
“You have to trust me, because you have no choice, not anymore,” he said, matter-of-factly, “As to how about I know what happened to your father; it was not easy to to piece together, but I had an advantage.”
He eyed her, yellow eyes piercing through her. She swallowed nervously, expectantly. When he had rattled her enough, he said, “Like recognizes like.”
“What the hells does that mean?”
“You know what it means.”
“I am nothing like you,” she hissed, eyes hard as stone, “You are a monster, one that has crept out of the deepest recesses of the sewer works in this kingdom.”
He continued to smile, continued to keep eye-contact, until she was the one to break it off. Only then did he say, “Though you did a good job of suppressing the rumors that have floated around since your father’s death, you were not able to remove them. Nor were you able to remove all the people who were around at the time. I asked around and got a few interesting answers.”
“Such as?” She spoke without looking at him. Her jaw was tightly clenched.
“For one, everyone agrees that you are the daughter of the late Mattias Dun, but no one seems to remember who your mother was. As a matter of fact, no one can quite put their finger on what year you were born. It’s almost as if you just appeared one day in the Dun household.”
“It was a long time ago,” she said, dismissively, “Why should they remember such trivial matters.”
“The missing identity of your mother is a trivial matter?” Hamelin laughed, flashing his teeth, “I think not. In fact, I think it is key. I’m also pretty sure your father was never actually your real father, but someone who saw an opportunity and took advantage. How is it; am I close?”
“You don’t know anything about me,” she stubbornly asserted.
“Perhaps not, but let me tell you a story. After you have heard the story, you may reconsider whether to follow me or not.”
She bit her lip, forcing herself to look away. “Fine. Tell your story.”
“Very well… A long time ago there was a woman. She lived alone, probably far away from civilization, and she kept to herself, avoiding all but the most necessary contact with the world around her. The woman had a daughter, which she adored above all else. For a time the two were happy, living their lives in obscurity, but then the daughter began to wonder: what might it be like to live among others?”
Lady Mina’s eyes softened and grew unfocused. Hamelin watched her closely, scanning her face for any markers of how much he was getting right.
“One day, the girl defied her mother, and went to find others like her. She was told she had to be careful around others, but she was too curious. It probably just began by her observing; a village, perhaps, or a traveling caravan. Nothing too big, but enough to sate her curiosity… at first.”
Unconsciously, lady Mina nodded ever so slightly. Hamelin grinned.
“Eventually, however, the girl could not resist approaching the people she observed. She might have had one good encounter, which emboldened her, but from that, rumors began. With each interaction the girl had with the outside world, the rumors grew stronger, until one day, someone decided they would find this girl in the wood.”
“Why…?” Lady Mina said, her voice breathless, “Why would anyone want to find her? Why would she be worth the trouble?”
“If her blood had a very special power, it would be worth it. Especially to a man.”
Within lady Mina’s large, doe-eyes, a tear began to form. “Is that all?” She said, voice hoarse.
“That’s all it takes,” Hamelin said, shrugging, “It is a tempting prize for anyone without scruples.”
“How does the story end?” She said, breath bated.
“Badly… for all involved,” Hamelin admitted, “The mother and her child was tracked down. The mother probably defended her child, sending her away as she held back the pursuers, but that only resulted in her death. With the mother dead, and the daughter too young to be of use, the hunters brought the girl back, locked her up, and waited for her to come of age.”
He looked her straight in the eyes. Displaying no sympathy or pity, he said, “Because, in the right hands, that kind of power can be taken away, and used to prolong the life of others. Such a ritual would not necessitate intercourse, but I have no doubt It played a key part.”
“It did,” she agreed, eyes now threatening to spill over. Quickly, she used a handkerchief to avoid ruining her make-up.
“And once the power of that blood is ripped away, it leaves only a deep hole of darkness behind,” he said, his voice low, but relentless, “The shock of it would be enough to make a young girl go crazy, enough that she might be unable to stop herself if her restraints came loose. One moment of distraction is all it takes to fell a man, especially if one is sufficiently—”
“Enough,” she said, holding up a hand. Straightening, she sniffed once, closed her eyes, then opened them again, looking straight at him. “You have made your point. I am convinced. You said you know how to deal with the darkness?”
“I do,” he said, nodding. For once, he neglected to smile.
“Then I will follow you. Ask what you will of me.”
“Excellent,” Hamelin said, regaining his smile, “And right on time, too. The show is about to start.”
Raising his hand, Hamelin pointed toward the dukor table, where raised voices had begun to cut through the surrounding noise, leaving many of the guests to turn their heads in that direction. In the center of the evolving argument, Asten was currently being raised into the air by another guest, his face white as a sheet.
“That one,” Hamelin grinned.