Silence is such a strange thing. It’s desirable when one wants to rest, and disliked when one desires an answer. It fills empty voids, spreading and ebbing like the tide, both empty of all impression and possessed of an irrefutable presence.
It was this presence, this thick and miasmic feeling, that wrapped around me in that silent inn. Eyes, wide and horrified, watched me as I tilted back in my chair slightly and grinned lazily.
“Really now, what terrible service. Surely an inn such as this has at least one serving girl? Well?”
Nobody moved. It was like they were in the same room as a wild beast, and they feared that any movement would bring the beast’s attention down upon them. I sighed.
“Come now, I’m not going to hurt anyone… else. Unless, of course, nobody brings me a drink. You see, I’m quite parched, and that’s making me rather irritable.”
There was a sudden flurry of movement at the corner of my eye, and I turned my head just in time to see a small, mousy girl with ratty brown hair and a stained apron be pushed out of the crowd and into my little circle. The girl stumbled slightly, but managed to keep her feet below her. At least, until she slipped in a puddle of blood and landed on the chest of a corpse. I watched in amusement as confusion, then realization flashed through her eyes, followed almost immediately by horror and disgust as she seemed to struggle with holding down her bile.
I gave her a few moments to rise and collect herself as best she could, taking the chance to glance over at the exit, where I found Nulba and Kresol standing firm against any chance of escape. A quick look at Thremsold saw him working his way towards the bar, and the second door set behind it.
A sniffle drew my focus back to the serving girl, who was wringing her hands anxiously in front of her now-bloodstained apron. I smiled as kindly as I could, and dipped my fingers into my coin purse to withdraw a single gold coin.
Her eyes got even wider, if that were possible.
“Hello, little one. I wonder, could you run and fetch me some of your best? If you do, this coin is yours, and if you’re quick there might even be more for you.”
She eyed me warily, but nodded and darted away towards the bar. I chuckled- A single gold coin was likely more than the inn made in a month, and here I was offering her a whole coin, all for her.
Why is that funny, you ask? Well, it’s really quite simple. I find it hilarious how these peasants slave away for scraps in their inns and bars, while merchants and mercenaries pull in hundreds of gold coins with a single job. And this didn’t even account for the massive profits that merchant guilds pull in, or the revenues that noble territories threw off. So much wealth, luxury, and power in the world, and these peasants could barely wrap their heads around just a hint of it.
“Oh, that reminds me.”
I pointed at a number of individuals eyeing the coin greedily.
“This is for that girl. If any of you think to take it, don’t think you’ll get off as lightly as these fools did.”
I gestured at the five brutalized corpses around me, and the room quickly fell back into docile, terrified silence. A scuffle drew my attention back towards the bar, where the girl was now pushing her way back to me with a wooden cup and a small barrel in her arms. I tilted my head, curious, but waited silently for her to make her way over to me, which she did so after another few moments of struggling through the crowd. Breathing heavily, she offered me the cup, and I accepted it gratefully. Holding the cup still, I watched as the girl quickly uncorked the barrel and carefully began pouring a measure of strong-smelling liquor into the vessel cupped in my hands, stopping when the liquid within had reached the two-thirds point. She quickly corked the barrel again, then set it down next to my footrest, trying to avoid the worst of the blood and offal. As she rose and began to back away, I grinned and flicked the coin towards her, then chuckled as she fairly dove to catch the glint of gold before it disappeared into the blood-speckled straw. As she gazed down into her cupped hands with awe, I raised the cups to my lips and downed a mouthful of burning liquid, sighing contentedly as the liquor warmed my insides and drove away the rest of my built up irritation, leaving me with just my usual amusement and the fading high that massacres always left me with.
“Now then, let’s have a little discussion, shall we? Or rather, less of a discussion and more of a negotiation. You all-”
I gestured to the few dozen individuals left in the room, all of whom watched me warily even as they grew more restless.
“- just saw me murder these poor young men. That’s right, murder. They didn’t hurt me, didn’t pull a blade, none of that. No, all they did was annoy me, and so their very existence became their crime.”
I paused to take another drink, and a burly man, red with drink, near the front of the crowd used the chance to interject.
“ Wha’ did those boys do ta ya, tha’ ya had to end them so? Annoy ya? Hardly’a crime ina this town!”
“True, true, ‘just because they annoyed me I killed them,’ is hardly a satisfactory reason, right? Well, don’t worry, there was another reason. These ‘boys’ as you put it, they ran this street, correct? Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but this street falls under The Butchers’ control, yes?”
Another voice piped up, another man, thinner and younger than the first.
“Tha’s right! Blackhand Oren owns this street, an’ all tha others ‘round it! And those boys were ‘is!”
I smiled happily, and nodded to the younger man.
“Thank you. So, in that case, I can expect some retaliation soon? Some of the Butchers’ best, perhaps?”
The first man laughed.
“Tha’s right, ya whoreson! Blackhand’s gonna crush ya! First he’ll cut ya, then stab ya, and then he gonna boil you!”
“A ‘Butcher’ indeed. Well then, to all you wonderful patrons, I’m afraid the night’s entertainment has come to an end. Oh, but for those of you hoping to make a profit by selling me out to the Butcher’s, feel free. I’ll even give you some information, free of charge- I’ll be staying in this inn for two more nights, this night besides, so make sure the Butchers get the news soon. I’d hate to miss them.”
Grinning, I stood and swept up the barrel with the remaining liquor, then began making my way towards the stairs leading up to the inn’s private rooms. The crowd parted before me, still watching me warily as though I were some sort of animal, then began to murmur and rumble behind me as I began to climb the stairs. Glancing back, I saw my party beginning to converge on the stairs, though Thremsold and Jules both seemed to be hanging back- Thremsold seemed to have cornered the inn’s owner-cum-bartender, and Jules was knelt near the bodies of the thugs I had slaughtered. Shrugging, I continued up the stairs and down the single hallway lined with doors all the way to the end, where I shouldered open the door leading into a room that looked out over the street. Quickly glancing around to ensure the room was clear, I made my way over to the simple-but-clean straw mattress set in a wooden frame and tossed the barrel down onto it, followed quickly by my cloak and the heaviest of my blades.
That was as far as I got before the door slammed open behind me, bouncing off the doorframe and nearly tearing free from its anchors.
Sighing, I turned- That knight was a menace to doors everywhere.
“WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?”
“How DARE you do such a- such a THING before milady!?”
I could see the princess’s mouth moving, but I couldn’t even hear myself think over the knight’s bellowing and the maid’s shrieking, both of which could serve as weapons in their own right if given half a chance.
“Consta, Conrad, so good of you to come share your opinions with me- And the rest of the city. Katarina, my apologies. I never intended for you to see such a sight this early on, but an opportunity presented itself and I couldn’t risk it slipping away. I do hope you can forgive me.”
She hid it well, this princess of mine, but she was shaken by the sudden and seemingly-senseless violence. Past her facade, deep within those emerald eyes, I could see her thoughts racing- She had known, on an intellectual level, that I had killed before and would do so again in her service, but this was the first time she had seen both proof of it, and been close enough to smell the voided bowels, taste the tang of blood, and watch the life fade from my victim’s eyes. It was certainly an enlighteningexperience for the little princess, and the first of many scenes I would have her bear witness to- A proper leader can’t be squeamish, and my plans called for a leader possessed of far more than just a sturdy stomach.
“That is hardly the first scene of death I have witnessed, Drak- no, Willhemet. I am not totally unaware of this world’s realities, I’ll have you know. But tell me, was that truly needed? Surely we have drawn the hostilities of this ‘Blackhand,’ and did you not say we would begin building my strength here? How does making more enemies increase my power in any way?”
I grinned and wagged one of my fingers towards the princess.
“Oh, you might be surprised. You see, I did say that would begin building your power here, in the slums, but we can hardly do that with the slums in their current condition. Currently the slums are divided into thirds, each ruled by a different Slum Lord and their respective gangs. This third, the western quarter, is the largest and also the most unruly. Blackhand Oren rules here, supported by his gang which goes by the rather quaint name of ‘The Butchers.’ Honestly though, outside of his immediate lieutenants and guards, the remainder of the Butchers are just a patchwork quilt of smaller gangs and random thugs. Regardless of their pedigree however, the Butchers are easily the largest and most violent faction within the slums- Their main sources of income include robbery, protection rackets, gambling, and hiring themselves out as thugs and guards. The next largest faction is ‘The Flowers,’ who rule the southern and central quarters of the slums. They are led by House-Mother Velera, and they are primarily made up of courtesans and underworld-freelancers, individuals who will take almost any task for meager pay, though their skills and loyalty are somewhat (or rather, entirely,) questionable. And finally, in the eastern quarter ‘The Rats’ bide their time and ply their trade- They are mostly thieves, though killers are hardly a rare sight as well, and they range from street urchins who swipe at pockets and purses all the way to master thieves and assassins who materialise from the night to claim what they desire, then disappear without a trace. This gang is by and far the smallest, and is led by an enigmatic man simply known as Kail.”
The princess snorted softly.
“As though you have the right to call another enigmatic. Well? As interesting as your little lecture was, it hardly explains what our course of action is to be.”
I sighed and reached over to the barrel, hefted it in one hand for a moment, then turned to the knight and offered it to him.
“Well, Conrad? After such a night, surely you’re as parched as I was. Take it, I won’t be drinking any more tonight- We’ll be having guests soon enough, I hope. As for your question, Katarina, the answer is both simple and convoluted. On the surface, the three gangs are bound by several separate accords and agreements that prevent open conflict by ensuring that any faction which attempts to attack another will find itself facing not one, but two foes. However, this does not mean that secret agreements and hidden violence were done away with, and so the three factions find themselves locked in this perpetual struggle where one can never gain an advantage without being carved back down by the other two. For our purposes however, this is intolerable- We need the resources and manpower of all the quarters, not just one or two. And so we must effectively unite the slums under a willing and able leader, a hegemon of crime as it were. To this end, we will need to weaken at least two of the factions and eliminate or subjugate their leaders while slowly binding the third to us. As to why we’re starting with the Blackhand, that much is simple. He is far too proud, far too powerful, and far too stupid to ever truly serve our purposes.”
The princess quirked an eyebrow.
“But did you not just say we needed a pliable servant to rule the slums as our proxy? Why not a powerful fool then, and one with a strong reputation at that?”
“Because, Katarina, powerful fools will always betray you at the worst possible moment. They can never be truly convinced that their power is due to another, and so they resent your control and plot against you. And like all fools, they have the damndest luck when it comes to ruining a well-laid plan. So it is far more desireable to have a willful monster, or an intelligent coward, because at the least those sorts of individuals will possess the brains to not act in self-destructive ways, and more often than not it is far easier to convince them to side with yourself once you have proven your strength. The coward will fear it, the monster will respect it, but the fool will discount it as luck. Also, while the coward may try to stab you in the back, and the monster will pounce if you show weakness, the fool is rarely predictable in his foolishness, and so presents a far greater threat.”
“You sound as though you speak from experience?”
I sighed and rubbed my face.
“I almost always do, Katarina. I almost always do.”