“What kind of game?” Heron asked, eyes narrowed.
“The kind in which you either win everything, or lose everything,” Halifax answered, calmly.
Completely sidelined, Asten could only watch as the two of them engaged in a battle of wits he could not hope to fully understand.
“And why would I play such a game with you?” Heron said, sniffing, “What could you possibly offer that would be worth such a risk?”
“To begin with, the money you lost. I will put it all on the line, even that which the other players got away with.”
Heron huffed and said, “So, they were all in on it?”
“Good heavens, no,” Halifax laughed, “You would have seen through such a conspiracy. No, they were all unwitting accomplishes, although not entirely unwilling, I suppose.”
“And how are you going to make them give back all that—” Heron said, but stopped himself and shook his head. “No, don’t tell me. I’m sure I don’t want to know.”
“I’m sure you don’t,” Halifax agreed, teeth flashing.
“That’s a good start, but nowhere near enough for me to agree to what you’re proposing.”
“Of course not, that is merely the appetizer. For the main course, though, you’ll have let your guests in.”
“My what?” Heron looked confused, until a knock on the door caught his attention. “What is it?” He asked, making sure to keep his eyes on Halifax.
The door opened, and Jelene entered and curtsied. “There are guests asking to speak with you.”
“Send them away,” Heron said, waving his hands, “I have other things to—” He hesitated and, with one eye still on Halifax asked, “Who is it?”
“Lady Mina and Master Arden,” Jelene said, swallowing nervously, “They made it clear they would not wait, so I was forced to—”
“It’s fine, my dear. Lead them inside, I’m sure this is another part of his game.”
“Whose…?” Jelene trailed off when she finally noticed the extra presence in the master’s office.
“Don’t make them wait,” Heron said, waving her away, “Send them in immediately.”
Jelene acknowledged the order, then opened the door up wide enough for the two new guests to answer. Lady Mina came sweeping in first, dressed in an exquisite dress and her hair laced with precious gems. Next came Arden Marn, dressed in an unadorned waistcoat, with a silky scarf around his neck.
After letting them in, Jelene was about to go back outside and close the door, when Halifax said, “Why don’t you keep her with you? It is her future we will be discussing, after all.”
Face full of suspicion, Heron nonetheless took the bait. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, as your heir, don’t you think your daughter should hear what I’m about to propose?”
Both Heron and Jelene looked to one another, both shaking their head to the other. Finally, Herons said, “I’m not sure what you’re—”
“Oh cut the bullshit already,” Arden said, seating himself in one of the chairs further back from Halifax, “It’s useless to hide things from him.”
Asten took careful note of Arden, who was known for his temper and brashness. Though the man understood his position, and the threat that Halifax posed to him, he was unaccustomed to being an errand boy.
“I assume you speak from personal experience,” Heron said, sighing, “Get in here, Jelene, and close the door behind you.”
The young woman nodded and did as she was asked stepping into the room.
“I knew you had taken control of the Marn family, but I had not yet heard about the Dun,” Heron said, turning on lady Mina, “I thought you of all people would resist being controlled the most.”
Lady Mina flashed her white teeth in a beatific smile, which nonetheless made Asten think of a snarling she-wolf.
“I did,” she said, shaking her head, “But he makes it difficult to refuse.”
“I guess I am about to find out myself,” Heron said, finally turning his attention back on the primary menace in the room, “What is it you’re planning, Halifax?”
“Like I said, it’s a wager — one you will be unable to refuse,” Halifax said, signaling to Arden behind him. The head of the Marn family grumbled, but stood up an approached, taking something out of his inner pocket and placed it before Heron.
“What’s this?” Heron put on a pair of glasses and picked up the item, a tube containing a piece of parchment.
“The deed to the Marn brewery,” Halifax said, “As my bet.”
“You’re betting the brewery?” Heron said, looking over the parchment with surprise, before he put it back in the tube and shook his head. “I suppose you want me to put up my gambling house in return, no?”
“That won’t do,” Heron said, looking Halifax directly into the eyes as he spoke, “The brewery is decent enough, but it doesn’t come close to the worth of my gambling house, nor does it justify my putting everything on the line for it.”
“I thought you’d say that,” Halifax agreed, then signaled lady Mina. The elegant woman stood up and placed a similar tube to the first on Heron’s desk.
“What if we add the Purple Palace to the bet?” Halifax asked, grinning. Both owners to the buildings that had been so easily offered up looked unwilling, but neither said a word. Heron studied them closely before he confirmed the contents of the second tube.
This time, the master of the Bason family could not easily dismiss the bet out of hand. Gaining these properties would ensure the Bason’s dominance over the town, and catapult them into highest strata of local politics.
Asten could see how conflicted Heron was, as he pressed his lips so hard together they became white. Only when Jelene stepped forward and put a hand on her father’s shoulder, did the man look up and say, “No. We cannot accept this bet.”
“What a shame,” Halifax said, shrugging, “I had hoped to do this the easy way. I suppose we’ll just have to engage in a months long suppression war, while you fight off the creditors you have lost the ability to pay.”
He stood up, and Asten immediately made to follow. He saw Arden and lady Mina exchange knowing looks, before they took back the deeds from the table and fell into step with Halifax. They were almost at the door, when Heron called out to them, “Wait.”
Turning, Halifax’s face was a mask of glee. “Have you reconsidered my offer?”
Hesitating, Heron bit his lip. Finally, he seemed to resolve himself, as he looked up and said, “You must put something on the line as well.”
Looking around, as if unsure whom Heron had been speaking to, Halifax pointed to himself and said, “Me?”
“Yes, you, who else?”
“Did you not just see the size of the prize I’m offering?”
“Those bets merely cover the worth of my gambling house. If I am to bet my wealth and the future of my family, you must also carry a risk of equal measure.
“I see…” Halifax closed his eyes, nodding to himself, “Then I shall put my life on the line. That is all I hold dear, and so the only appropriate bet for me to make.”
“You will give me your life?” Heron said, sounding surprised.
“To be more exact, I will fight for my life. In the arena you’ve so meticulously prepared for tonights grand event, I will fight against any opponent of your choosing to the death.”
“That’s what you want us to gamble on? A fight between yourself and one of my fighters?” Heron said, raising his eyebrows as he studied Halifax’s small figure.”
“I have seen the bodies you left behind in Arden’s brewery,” Heron said, narrowing his eyes, “I know how you kill. You use some kind of poison, or rely on those claws to maim your opponents, none of which are allowed in my fighting ring. If I see even a hint of any trickery, you will have lost the bet; do you agree to these terms?”
To Asten, Halifax looked more and more excited, the more Heron spoke. Once the head of the Bason family had laid out his terms, Halifax grinned and said, “I accept.”