“As you wish,” The old man said, then began his story. “Tremon has always been a rather peaceful town, mostly because it has nothing precious to offer. There may be a few thugs in town, but nothing like the bustling underground you’ll find in the cities. Still, there are three families who control less than reputable sources of income.”
Asten returned and handed Hamelin a cup of tea, then stepped back, eyes glued onto the small and ugly figure of this ‘master’. Smelling the tea, Hamelin found nothing but the fragrant smell of a medicinal blend. He sipped it, enjoying the taste, while the old man kept talking.
“There’s the Bason family, who control the gambling house, next to the inn. Then there are the Duns, who run a small brothel by the riverside. Finally, the Marns, who supply the town with ale; they’ve got a small army of strongmen, whose services they rent out to places around the city for a small protection fee — or so they say.”
“A balance, then,” Hamelin observed, taking another sip of his tea.”
“Indeed, Master, a balance. Until recently, that is.”
“The Marns family recently employed another master from the Inverse,” The old man gritted his teeth with frustration, “Someone who’s very good with poison.”
“Is he the one who poisoned you?” Hamelin said, yellow eyed sparkling. This, indeed, might be an excellent opportunity.
“Yes… The Raison Poison was a show of force, meant to coerce me under the thumb of the Marns family. As long as I did as they said, they’d keep giving me the antidote… They’ve done the same trick with most vendors who deal with the local underground.”
“Placing the town’s supply under their control,” Hamelin nodded, “That’s rather clever of them.”
“Indeed. With this, they can outmaneuver the other families and pressure them until they submit. But, since you have cured me—”
“You are cured, Grandpa?” Asten broke in, joy shining in his eyes.
“Yes, now shut up, boy. I’m speaking to the master,” said the old man and threw his own tea cup after his apprentice. Ducking out of the way, Asten mumbled an apology.
“Anyway,” the old man said, continuing his story, “Since you have cured me, the Marn family will do everything in their power to ensure it cannot happen to the rest of their victims. They will, of course, try to poison me again, but more than that: they will be looking for the one who could cure the poison.”
Eyes narrowed, Hamelin leaned forwards, speaking in a low voice, “Are you threatening me, old man?”
“No! I wouldn’t dream of it, Master! I’m telling you, because this is an opportunity. Before they realize that I’m free of the poison, they won’t expect anyone to attack them.”
“And you want me to do that? Why would I put my nose any further into this squabble?”
“Because you said you were looking for poisons,” the old man said, showing a hint of a smile, “And that Inverse master is said to have a lot of it.”
Hamelin stroked his chin, contemplating. He was uncertain what it meant, this Inverse, and how one became a master of it. The issue was that the old man was probably right; once they realized someone could cure their poison, they would stretch all available resources to hunt him down.
He was confident that they would be unable to figure out his true identity, but it might become a nuisance for his future plans, if he had to move with too much care. Then, there were the lure of poisons. It was true he needed a lot of it, with great variety, and it was tempting; however, it was an altogether different advantage that made Hamelin consider it favorably.
“I see.. And what you want me to do is simply to take out the Inverse master, correct?”
“Yes! Once the master is out of the picture, the Marns will have to satisfy themselves with the status quo again, and business will be back to usual.”
Hamelin grinned, teeth flashing. It might not go exactly as the old man wished. “I suppose I could do that… but what will you offer me in return?”
“You said this was a favor to you… If I do this favor for you, what will you do for me in return?”
“Ahh… I… My stock—”
“I have already taken what I wanted.”
“Well, then… I can procure more, whatever you want!”
Hamelin weighed the offer, but in the end he shook his head and said, “Not good enough.”
“Then… What do you suggest?”
“If I do this for you, you will have to serve me. I want you unquestioning loyalty; nothing less will satisfy me.”
“M-My loyalty?” The old man looked from Hamelin to his apprentice, then back again. It looked like he came to a decision, when he went down on his knees and said, “Master, if you do this, I will serve you to the best of my abilities.”
“Very good,” Hamelin nodded and stood up, “I will return tonight. I need you to show me the way to my prey.”
With those words he turned and walked out the store, leaving the old man and his apprentice behind, both relieved and unnerved.
As he walked out, Hamelin could not help but smile. He had not thought his search for poisons would bear so much fruit, and indeed offer him an opportunity such as this. Whoever this Inverse master was, or how powerful he was, as long as it was a battle of poisons, he was confident that he could outmatch anyone.
The poisons and the old man’s loyalty were both useful bonuses, but there was something even more valuable than these in store, if he played his hand right.
Rubbing his hands against one another, he entered a narrow passage and undid the transformation to his appearance, ridding himself of his ugly exterior.
The innocent-looking Hamelin, with a dangerous gleam in his eyes, returned to the market.