Swallowing, Asten looked up at the old man, while cold sweat broke out down his back.
“M-Master Heron Bason, I presume?” Asten said, fighting his stammer.
“Indeed. I have heard much about you, young master Asten, and your actions today has only made me more intrigued by you. May I have a moment of your time?”
“You old bastard, are you trying to stop the boy from taking all your money?” Master Cordon said, hammering the table with his fist, “Has the honor of the Bason family fallen so low?”
“Of course, we do not intend to stop young master Asten, however,” Heron spoke to the crowd, before turning his attention back on Asten, “I believe this young man would be very interested in hearing what I offer.”
“T-Then I will play one more game,” Asten said, trying to turn back to the table. Grabbing him by the shoulder, Heron forcefully stopped him and spoke so low that only he could hear, “Do not make this difficult for me, master Asten.”
“That doesn’t look like an invitation to me,” Cordon said, sniffing, “It looks like intimidation.”
“I am simply going to invite young master Asten here to the highlight of tonights event,” said Heron, glaring at Cordon, “I believe his participation would only make it more interesting.”
“Then what’s the harm in letting him play one more game?” Cordon grinned and rubbed his hands, his eyes reflecting the greed in his heart.
Heron just stared Cordon down, then spoke to Asten with a low voice again, “I am not interested in making a scene, master Asten, nor am I interested in making things hard for you. What I want is the one working in the shadows behind you.”
Hearing this, Asten knew the game was up. Heron was a shrewed business man, who was renowned for knowing everything about what happened in Tremon. Nodding, Asten got on his feet and spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I will hear what master Heron wishes of me.”
To Heron, though, he spoke in a low mumur, “I will bring you to him, if you wish, but we will speak in private. Your office should suffice.”
“Hmph, how boring,” said Cordon, scowling, “I hope you will make up for this later, old fart.”
Heron raised an eyebrow, but gave a shallow nod, then turned to Jelene and said, “Make sure our guests are entertained while master Asten and I talk.”
The woman nodded, eying Asten suspiciously, then turned to give commands. Every overseer nearby immediately turned to fulfill her orders. Meanwhile, Asten followed after Heron, for whom the crowd parted as if forced back by the sheer presence of the man.
Now that he was not being pressured directly, Asten had the time to inspect the old man’s features, which were both refined and imposing. His long, black-pepper hair was sprinkled with stains of salt and held up by a cue at the back of his head, while a well-trimmed beard filled out his face.
He carried himself with a natural authority that made it difficult to do anything but admire him. Asten had seen him before, at a distance, but never had he been so close. In the presence of Heron Bason, it was almost difficult to breathe.
They exited the hall and and walked up another set of stairs, leading to the private apartments of the Bason family. Here, Heron led Asten into a wide, rectangular room, lined with bookcases and crowned with an imposing desk standing in the middle.
Seating himself behind that very same desk, Heron pointed to one of the chairs in front of it and said, “Sit.”
Nodding, Asten did as he was asked, keeping his hands on his thighs and back straight. Darting his eyes back and forth, he looked of any sign of an ambush, but none was readily visible.
“I am not in the habit of forcing my guests,” Heron said, placing a heavy palm on the table, “But in this case I must insist. Tell my why your master ordered you here today.”
“I thought you wanted to know where he is?” Asten said, trying to buy time for himself.
“You will tell me, eventually, but right now I need to know the ‘why’, before I learn the ‘where’.”
“That’s a pity,” Asten said, slumping his shoulders, “That would have been the easier question to answer.”
“And why is that?”
Asten was not sure how to answer that question, but merely looked down onto the carpeted floor, waiting.
The sharp voice made Asten jolt, and he was about to say what he meant, when another, much colder voice, spoke, “Because I am already here.”
Relieved at the assist, Asten finally looked up to see his master appear seemingly out of nowhere. Master Halifax’s stature was small, but there was something unmistakably imposing about the sickly, yellow eyes which glowed from within the darkness of his cowl.
Turning, Heron looked at the interloper and opened his mouth, presumably to call for the guards.
“I would advise you to not make any foolish moves,” Halifax spoke again, while his frame became a blur. From standing perfectly still a few feet away, he suddenly shifted and appear at Heron’s back, hands transformed into vicious claws now held at his throat.
Asten remembered the first time he had seen the hands transform and shivered. The mere thought of master Halifax as his enemy made him nauseous.
“We can speak in a civilized manner,” Halifax continued, “Or we can be barbarians. What do you think, master Heron?”
“You have come to talk?” The old man said, his eyes showing no hint of fear.
“Then remove your filthy claws, and we may talk.”
Halifax did as Heron asked, and hopped down from the table. Walking around the it, he took a seat next to Asten, blinking cheekily. His mouth ruptured in a silvery smile, as Heron rearranged his shirt, which had come slightly out of order.
“Now, don’t tell me you arranged this entire charade just to get me alone,” Heron said, once finished with his clothes.
“Of course not. If that was all I wanted, I could have taken the initiative any one of the seven times you have been alone in your office in the two days,” Halifax, grin widening at the blood that visibly ran from Heron’s face.
“So, you wanted to cheat me out of a bit of gold first?” Heron sniffed and crossed his arms, “They say you have a thousand faces, so I suppose they combine to some pretty thick skin, for someone so shameless.”
Halifax laughed, teeth flashing in the light of the candles. “I suppose you could call me shameless, I don’t mind. However what I cheated you out of was not just a bit of gold. With the total winnings from all of the players, I’d say you’ve lost about a quarter of your family’s worth, as well as at least half of your total cash reserve.”
“We will survive,” Heron said, dismissing the seriousness of the situation, “We Basons have deep roots.”
“Of course, but you’ve also got a lot of creditors, and a lot of bills to pay. Tonight was supposed to provide you with a much needed infusion of cash into your business, but with a few, well placed bets, I have voided any potential gain for you.”
“And this is your aim? You think you can gamble me out of enough money that I will simply hand over my business to you?”
Halifax shook his head, eyes narrowing with mirth. “Oh no, that would take too much time. I’m not interested in bankrupting you, but to provide you with some incentive.”
“Incentive? Incentive to do what?” Heron crossed his arms and looked down upon Halifax’s small figure. Asten could see the disregard in the man’s gaze.
“Incentive to play a game with me,” Halifax said, putting up a finger, “Enough so that you will be unable to refuse.”