“Are you out of your bloody mind?” Lady Mina hammered the table beside her, as she faced off against the little monster sitting in front of her, wrapping his small fists with bandages.
“Oi, oi, Mina, should you really be talking to him like tha—?” Arden, who was leaning against the frame of the door, said, eyes wide with surprise from the outburst.
“What did you just call me?” She growled, turning her ire on Arden, who visibly shrunk beneath her glare. When she found him sufficiently cowed, she turned back to Halifax, who had removed his shirt and cloak, but kept the cowl on.
The state of his body surprised her, as his size would suggest he was a child. The rough and stringy muscles which were clearly visible beneath his skin belied his small stature. Biting her lip, she scolded herself for even suspecting he was so young.
This was the body of someone who had trained and fought his entire life.
“Answer me,” she insisted, when he kept ignoring her. His face was slightly different from the one that had greeted her at their first meeting, more flat and featureless, but those yellow eyes stayed the same — sickly enough to make her nauseous.
“What do you want me to say? That I am not out of my mind? Is that not something someone who actually is out his mind would say?”
“Don’t play games with me and tell me what the hell you were thinking, agreeing to be a fighter? I thought you said this would be safe bet?”
“And it is—”
“It is nothing of the sort! Do you even know what kind of fighters Heron has gathered? They’re experts who have survived in underground death fights for years, if not decades! How can you be certain you’ll win against that?”
For the first time since they entered the chamber, which had been made available for Halifax to prepare for his upcoming fight, he looked at her. She shivered, as his cold gaze pierced through her.
“Neither of you have any right to question me,” he said, coldly and calmly.
“You’re wrong,” she said, through gritted teeth, “You owe me an explanation, at least.”
He looked at her for at long time, before he finally turned to Arden and said, “Leave us.”
Arden looked from one to the other, before shrugging and leaving the room. Alone with the monster once again, Mina could not help but feel a pang of regret. Even if he was no protection against Halifax, Arden’s presence in the room was at the very least an illusion of security.
“You think I owe you an explanation,” he said, his voice as cold as ice, “Why?”
“You may have Arden bent over backwards to please you because of that thing you gave him,” she said, pointing to her own neck, “But I am not like him. I’ve agreed to follow you because you’ve promised me something in return. That makes me your partner, not your mindless follower.”
“I think you misunderstand something,” Halifax said, his voice a hissing whisper, “We did not make a trade. A trade requires the parties to be equal, and we are nothing of the sort.”
“So what would you call it?”
“A pact between a sovereign and his subject.”
Huffing, she crossed her arms and wrinkled her brow. “That’s just semantics. At least tell me this: why don’t you just do to Heron what you did to Arden? It seems to work perfectly well, the way he wags his tail at you. Why take this risk?”
Halifax shook his head. “That would be a bad move.”
“Aside from forming a bond between fellow sufferers, it would also just make Heron resentful, and that would be counter-productive.”
“And a resentful Arden isn’t counter-productive?”
Halifax sighed and stood up, making a few punches in the air. “The reason it works on Arden is because threats and violence is the language he understands. I’ve essentially beaten him at his own game, and he knows the law of the jungle.”
“Is that also what you did to me? What game do you think you beat me in?” She could not help a note of doubt entering her voice. She was still unsure why he had gone so far out of his way to convince her, rather than just taking what he wanted.
“Partially. Arden was a rush job, so it will have to be reinforced in the future, but with you I took care to identify your strength and how to use it against you.”
“My strength? Which is?”
“Desire. You’re the proprietor of a brothel, so of course your business is desire, but its more than that. You have identified the true desires of your costumers as something more than mere flesh, and taken steps to mold your girls into fulfilling that desire. I merely did the same to you.”
“You identified my true desire, and used it against me…”
“Indeed. Once I realized what you were, and what had happened to you, it was not difficult to guess your desire. After you refused my offer of wealth, as well as my threats, I knew you could only be swayed by your deepest desire.”
Nodding, lady Mina could not help but admire the cold clarity of his thinking. He was not merely a brute, as she had first assumed, but a skilled manipulator. If he had been this careful about his approach to her, then what about the Basons?
“Then what are you using against Heron? Does he have some desire you can use?”
“Of a sort, but a more specific one. Heron hides it well, beneath a facade of refinement and gentle manners, but he has an insatiable greed for wealth and status,” Halifax said, trying out a few more punches and kicks.
Though she knew little of martial arts, lady Mina could not help but feel a bit disappointed at his movements. She knew he was fast, but without his clawed hands or his poison, how was he going to win with that small body?
“So, you offered him our properties in order to entice that greed, and made him want to take this bet with you. However, you could not have expected him to want even more, and force you to put your life on the line.”
“Wrong,” Halifax stopped and turned toward her. Within his cowl, she could see his yellow eyes gleaming with something akin to mirth, “It was always going to be me who fought against his fighter. In forcing my hand, Heron merely gave me the right justification to do so.”
Mina furrowed her brow, and was preparing to ask another question, when a knock on the door disturbed them. The young apothecary popped his head through the entrance and said, “It’s time, Master. It’s your turn to fight.”
“Excellent,” Halifax said, grinning, “It’s time to reap my rewards.”