Hamelin spat out another gob of half-congealed blood, wrinkling his nose at the taste in his mouth. In his former life, he would have enjoyed the taste of fresh blood, but in his current bloody, it felt like wet iron was saturating his mouth.
He had sat down the moment he had come back to his room, wiping off the sweat and blood from his face with a towel. His body felt like a thousand needles were pricking through it; the price for using vexen martial arts with a human body.
Although he had made alterations to his bone structure and flesh, there was no way around the fact that his body was no longer that of a vexen, and could therefore not reliably perform those techniques. The chief problem was his lack of a tail, which made it impossible to keep balance in his movements.
Hissing to himself in frustration, he went over the fight in his mind, picking at mistakes. Using his body like a battering ram had been effective, because his opponents had underestimated him, as well as the preparatory strikes he had made to Astoc’s knee, weakening it before slamming into it. However, in a proper fight, such a tactic would have been suicide.
Though he would normally have relied on his claws or withermancy, Hamelin understood that there would come a time when these would be ineffective measures, and he had to prepare for that.
While deep in thought, he was not surprised when a knock on the door announced the arrival of his new underlings.
“Enter,” he said and leaned back in his chair. Arden entered first, visibly swallowing when he saw Hamelin’s bloody appearance. Looking down, the head of the Marn family stepped to the side and let the others enter.
Lady Mina followed, staring straight into Hamelin’s eyes without flinching. His smile widened, as she approached and took up the towel and said, “May I?”
“Why thank you,” he said, blinking to her cheekily. She shook her head and dipped towel in a nearby bowel with water, before applying it to his face with gentle strokes. Having the head of the Dun family treat him with such care would have made others tongue-tied, but Hamelin ignored the woman and turned his gaze on the last three entrants.
Heron, head of the Bason family and his final prey, entered with a worried expression on his face, followed by his daughter Jelene, and Asten.
“Ahh… Master Heron,” Hamelin said, giving the man his best smile, “I’m so glad you could join us. Did you bring it?”
Taking a deep breath, Heron nodded and took out a small tube from his inner pocket and handed it to Asten, who stood off to the side. Receiving it, Asten looked to Hamelin for confirmation, before he opened the tube and inspected the contents.
“It’s the deed, Master,” Asten said, giving a small bow.
“Ahh… A man of his word. An admirable trait, master Heron.”
Straightening, Heron set his jaw and said, “I pride myself on honoring all bets, master Halifax, especially my own.”
“Excellent. You have exceeded my expectations. Asten, please continue.”
“Are you sure, Master?” Asten said, giving Halifax a questioning look. Baring his teeth, Halifax spoke in a cold tone of voice, “I do not remember giving you permission to question me, Asten. Do it.”
Shuddering, Asten quickly nodded and presented the tube back to Heron. The business man raised an eyebrow and turned from the item to Halifax. “What’s this?”
“A gesture of sincerity,” Halifax said, waving in his general direction, “I grant you back what I took from you, with the promise that I can take it away again whenever I please.”
“I see… I presume I will have to do something in return?”
“Of course. Nothing in this world is free, master Heron. You of all people should know this.”
Heron nodded and said, “I shall serve you faithfully, master Halifax.”
Before Hamelin, the heads of the three families bowed. Smiling Hamelin laughed and said, “Excellent, now that all that unpleasantness is done with, we can finally discuss business.”
“Is that why you decided to take control?” Lady Mina said, raising an eyebrow. While both Heron and Arden were somewhat cowed, this woman was more than willing to question him, despite the fear Hamelin could see in her eyes.
“I took control because the lot of you were about to start a war,” Hamelin said, shrugging, “And although I normally wouldn’t care, right now I cannot afford for you to kill one another.”
“Why not?” Said Arden, eyes narrowed. Hamelin looked at him, seeing the signs of someone looking for a weakness.
“Because a fight between the three of you would not be contained within this city. The Marn and Dun families had already invited outside forces, and I have no doubt that you, Heron, would have made liberal use of your fighting ring to entice fighters to your cause. That kind of fighting brings attention to this town, and that is something I wish to avoid.”
“So, what happens now?” Lady Mina said, crossing her arms.
“Two things. First, take this, Heron,” Hamelin said, handing the old gentleman a piece of parchment. Heron approached and accepted the item, looking it over with an increasing frown.
“Master… What is this?” He finally said, looking up.
“A list of items which you will procure.”
Heron looked down at the list and this time his entire face became marred with a confused expression. “I’m afraid I only know a little less than half of the items here, and the ones that I do…” Looking up again, Heron looked to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “Master, even if the three families here pooled all of our resources, we couldn’t afford a tenth of this.”
Hamelin waved a hand dismissively and said, “I don’t need all of it all at once, so you don’t have to worry about that. The list is in an prioritized order, and the most inexpensive items should be at the top. For now, I need you to find what you can and deliver it to me.”
“I’m not asking you to do this for free, mind you,” Hamelin said, forcefully interrupting Heron’s objection, “I will fully reimburse you for any item you can obtain, as well as provide 5 percent of the procurement price as a bonus.”
Heron’s eyes suddenly lit up, as did Arden’s. Money had that affect on people, Hamelin had found. Smiling, he continued, “Secondly, I will have each of you make slight changes to you business.”
While both Heron and Arden were distracted by the potential profit from Hamelin’s list, lady Mina calmly asked, “What kind of changes?”
That got the others’ attention, and Hamelin was once again impressed by the lady’s composure. “To start with, Heron, I want you to make arrangements to operate your business as a bank.”
“There’s already a bank in town, Master,” Heron said, raising an eyebrow, “Do you want me to compete with that?”
“I don’t need a legitimate bank,” Hamelin explained, patiently, “I need one that can work without official scrutiny. We will expand into real banking later, but for now, I need someone who can bankroll out future operations while escaping the eyes of the officials.”
“Future operations, Master?”
“Yes, from here on out, we will be expanding and taking over all underground business in the area, including nearby towns and cities. I need a position from where we can send and receive the funds we will be working with going forward… at a worthwhile interest, of course.”
Heron licked his lips and gave a nod. Hamelin knew that the man valued wealth more than anything, and that he would have to prove that he could provide Heron with opportunities if he wanted him to stay loyal.
“And you, Arden, I need manpower.”
“We’ve already got the best men in town,” Arden said, crossing his arms.
“I don’t need thugs. I need people capable of taking over the underground of another city. Can you men do that?”
Chewing on his lip, Arden finally said, “No, Master. They cannot.”
“Then you will have them trained until they can. Or, you will purchase outside forces until we have the people we need. I have several recipes for ale, which will increase sales from the brewery; use some of the funds you collect that way to buy more hands. The rest is yours to keep.”
“Yes, Master,” Arden said, bowing his head. He could not hide the greed surfacing in his eyes, though. Keeping the man in check with pure force was a bad strategy, and so Hamelin intended to provide him with enough benefits that the idea of betraying him would become unprofitable.
“I suppose I’m next,” lady Mina said, tilting her head, “Whatever might the great Halifax have for me?”
“Not a huge change, I assure you,” Hamelin said, shaking his head, “Since I took out your alchemist, I will provide you with whatever drug you need through Asten and the apothecary. You will continue to train your girls in the arts, enough for them to be envied by any wife in town. However, you main activity will not just be entertainment, but information.”
“You want my girls to spy?”
“Not spy, necessarily, but listen. I’m sure you’re already keeping a book with accounts of all the sordid details which are spoken about beneath the bed-sheets, enough that you could probably twist the mayor himself around your fingers if you wanted.”
Lady Mina turned her head, but did not deny the charge. Smiling, Hamelin continued, “All I want you to do is to be more organized. As we expand our sphere of influence, I want you to gather the information you girls collect and sort it. In time, buying and selling information will become your chief mode of income.”
“I see… Very well, I guess I have little choice in the matter,” she said, sighing.
“You will all be receiving benefits from working under me,” Hamelin assured them, “What I’m telling you now is just the beginning. As you’ve probably already guessed, the reason for Asten’s recent success is myself, and I have a lot more to offer. As long as you stick with me, I will make you fabulously wealthy.”
Both Heron and Arden looked convinced, while lady Mina only raised an eyebrow at him. He had already offered her something a lot more valuable, so the wealth did not entice her.
“Of course, you are free to scheme against me if you like,” Hamelin continued, his smile growing vicious, “But understand that I do not tolerate failure, so if you fail to utterly defeat me, you should not expect to live long. Do you understand?”
The three of them nodded. “Then you may leave. I will not meet you directly in the future, rather, my instructions will come through Asten.”
The heads of the three powerful families all swung their heads in Asten’s direction, and the young man swallowed nervously. The only one who was not immediately surprised was Arden, who had already received these instructions before.
“If you have to relay emergency information to me, it will be done through Asten as well.” They all understood that with that one instruction, Asten had just become the most influential man in town. Arden was the first to leave, bowing and offering his farewells. Then Heron bowed his head and said, “Master, if I may ask a question…?”
“I utterly accept my loss in the ring, but I still do not understand how your man beat my dukor table. My overseers are trained to spot any attempt at signaling or exchanging information, so how could young Asten beat the house?”
“I take it you’re not going to accept the argument that he merely played the odds?” Hamelin said and laughed.
“No, Master, I will not.”
“Very well… Wither, show yourself.”
Crawling up on his shoulders, the little rat looked triumphantly at Heron, who looked back with a non-plussed expression.
“You mean to say that this… rat… is what was feeding master Asten with information?”
“Information is a strong word… let’s just say that he gave the signal.”
“But… there is no way this rat could signal the house’s hand…”
“That’s why I said he was merely giving the signal for Asten to take on the house,” Hamelin explained, raising his hands, “I was the one determining whether or not it was the right time.”
Shaking his head, Heron laughed self-depricatingly. “I’m not sure I understand how, even now, Master. I accept my loss, as you have outwitted me completely.” With that, the head of the Bason family exited the room, followed by his daughter.
Finally, only lady Mina and Asten was left. “I guess I’ll take my leave as well,” she said, turning to bow.
“Wait a moment, Minara,” Hamelin said, holding up a hand, “I’m gonna need a room in the Purple Palace for the night.”