It took only a few hours for my predictions to be proven true- Nulba reported several separate parties had the inn under surveillance, and the vast majority of that night’s patrons had almost immediately fled, either back to their homes or off to their local informant to sell my location for a pittance. However, a few hours were all that were needed for my preparations to be completed. Thremsold took care of the innkeep- A few gold coins put the inn’s ownership in my hands, and a sharp blade in a dark alley returned the gold to my coffers. The mousey girl decided to stay, hungry for more gold despite the change in management, and I had to admire her tenacity. Perhaps she wasn’t as timid as I first thought. Luckily, there were no other guests staying in the inn’s rooms that I had to deal with, and so it was a simple matter to ensconce our party in the rooms farthest from the stairs and begin the task of transforming the upper level into a residence fit for a princess. Not that Katarina requested it, and I honestly doubted we could produce anything that the maid would view as suitable anyway, but appearances were important. In the meanwhile, I sent Kresol to secure provisions and had Carilo familiarize himself with the bar and the drinks beneath it- He had some experience tending one, but it had been awhile since we had been in a bar as anything more than patrons. Jules and Roord (The former member of her Hounds) I tasked with watching the front of the inn while Nulba observed the rest of the surroundings, and I aided the princess and her party with unpacking and furnishing the rooms.
Well, the princess didn’t do much besides watch curiously, but that was to be expected- Like I said, appearances and whatnot. Consta and Conrad both spent the majority of their time working on the princess’s room, pulling what seemed to be an endless supply of blankets and throws from their packs to turn the once-simple room into a parlour of dark furs and red pillows- The princess really seemed to favor a certain set of colors. Set beside the princess’s bed was a small stack of books, which I eyed curiously but left alone for the moment- There would be time enough to look at them later, over the course of the ‘Lessons’ I was already planning.
In comparison to Katarina’s room of red and black, the knight’s room was spartan- He only added a large, brown blanket to his bed. The maid was similar, though she also had a few small tomes beside her bed and a set of inks and quills. That intrigued me, but I didn’t have the spare time to question her about it, and I doubted I would get much of a positive response even if I did so.
What about my room, you ask?
Well, it hardly changed much, I just drove a nail into one of the walls to hang my set of blades from.
They weren’t my combat blades.
We had just finished securing the inn and settling ourselves in when a messenger arrived, slightly ahead of my expectations. Alerted by Roord, I met them at the door while Jules watched silently nearby, smirking as she flipped a dagger from hand to hand and eyed the messenger hungrily.
I ignored her, instead focusing on the lean, silent individual before me and meeting his cold, grey gaze with my own curiously-amused one.
“Well, hello there. Kail acts quickly, faster than the rumors say. I suppose you have a message?”
The messenger, a young man swaddled in a black robe, raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Instead, a leather-wrapped hand extended from the cloak and offered me a small scroll, bound with a single red ribbon. As soon as I took it, the messenger’s hand withdrew into his cloak like a viper returning to its den, and he quickly moved away from the inn, eyes still on me like a snake watches its prey- Unblinking. I chuckled as I watched him dart into a nearby alley, then closed the door to the inn and made my way over to a chair and settled into it, undoing and pocketing the ribbon as I did so. Before I had a chance to unfurl the scroll however, I felt a weight settle across my shoulders and back, and Jules leaned her head against mine.
“So? What does the rat king want?”
I sighed, and shifted slightly to make sure one of my blades was in easy reach.
“I would be able to tell you, Jules, if you had actually given me a chance to read it before asking. Also, do you really need to drape yourself on me like this?”
She chuckled throatily, and pressed herself against my back with more force, rubbing herself on me slightly. A lesser man might have been tempted, but since I was a paragon of virtue I felt no stirrings of desire, no twinges of lust. Or perhaps that was because I had seen her seduce a man, and then slit his throat in the middle of their lovemaking.
“Oh Will, don’t act like you don’t enjoy it. Now hurry and open that message, I’m curious!”
And I was annoyed.
Sighing again, I shook the message open and began to read the cramped, skittery writing within.
“Well, you’ve made quite the stir, haven’t you? The Butchers are well and truly riled now- It seems one of the young men whom I hear you killed so brutally was a son of a high-ranking member of the Blackhand’s inner circle. They’re still trying to figure out who you are, and though I don’t think they’ll succeed any time soon, don’t get complacent- I ‘predict’ they’ll move against you as soon as the sun begins to set, if not sooner. I do hope you survive as it has been so boring lately, and besides, it gets so very lonely on the fringes, does it not?”
I grimaced in irritation, then quickly crumpled the unsigned paper and flung it onto the still-smouldering embers of last night’s fire. I watched as the message burned, quickly being consumed by my thoughts just as the paper was by the flames, until Jules shook me from my silence.
“Why the sour face, Will? It seems as though we have a friend in the east. Though, that last line did seem a bit strange. What did he mean?”
I shook my head.
“It was just a cryptic way of indicating it came from Kail, I’m sure. Thieves and assassins are the ultimate outsiders, after all. What concerns me isn’t that, but rather the fact that the Butchers are moving faster than I anticipated- I thought we’d at least have until long after nightfall. We will need to advance the schedule somewhat, and now I owe Kail a favor. How aggravating.”
Lies. Or rather, misdirection and falsehoods. Everything I said was true, with two exceptions. One was the bit about me owing Kail- Honor among thieves is a wonderful dream, and one I have yet to see realized. Kail giving me that knowledge was simply him indicating just how extensive his networks were, and how little information such as that was worth to him. However, the true deception in my words was my explanation for Kail’s final, cryptic line. I knew well what he was referring to, and it sealed two thoughts firmly in my mind. One, Kail was an extremely resourceful and useful individual, one I would need to use. And the second was, once I had wrung Kail dry, he would have to die by my own hand.
I sighed for a third time and mentally added another name to the reaper’s tally floating in my mind, silently wondering if there would be anyone left once I had finished my bloody business. Not that I particularly cared about the bodycount, mind you, but it would be unbearably boring if there were only fools left at the end of my scheming.
I put that matter aside as I noticed the princess’s small figure working its way towards me across the changed bar-room, avoiding Thremsold who was just now finally removing the last of the blood-soaked straw from last night’s fun. It took her a few moments- We had been moving tables and chairs into barricades and funnels, so that when the inevitable attack came our foes would be forced to either face us one-on-one, or climb over a pile of junk and be promptly slaughtered by the twins and their slings. By the time the princess reached me, I had managed to shake Jules off and had sent her to start preparing a few tricks for if the Butchers proved more dangerous than I expected.
“Katarina. Please, take a seat. What can I do for you?”
She looked at me evenly for a moment, then sat herself down in one of the two remaining chairs not pressed into service as a barricade. She remained silent for a moment, then sighed and began to speak.
“It seems as though everything has changed in such a short amount of time. Less than two weeks ago, I was a princess with a tenuous position at best, but my life seemed secure and my people safe. Now, I find myself holed up in an inn, preparing to weather a siege by peasants in service to a ‘Slum Lord.’ It just feels rather unreal.”
I smiled wryly and raised an eyebrow.
“Do you know, that may be the first truly normal statement I have ever heard you make. It actually sounds like you are a princess of fifteen summers, instead of your usual guise of someone many years beyond your age.”
She glared at me and waved me off.
“How has someone as flippant and as rude as you made it so long in this world?”
“With charms, wits, gold, and steel. Now really though, what can I do for you? As much as you may want to build up the trust between us, I hardly believe that you intend to achieve this by simply exchanging small talk with me.”
She sighed, then gestured around.
“I was curious. I can clearly see that you are preparing for a conflict, but at the same time you’ve been expanding and personalizing our lodgings. Indeed, I heard you order that thin man, the one with the perpetually calm expression, to get ready to staff the bar. These hardly seem like the actions one would take if they expected this place to become a battlefield.”
I raised my eyebrow again.
“How observant of you. Yes, I expect this place to see bloodshed. Rather soon too, if my sources are to be believed. And yes, I also expect to use this place as a base of operations for some time to come. Originally, I intended to simply move from inn to inn every few days, but with our larger party and the attention we’ve drawn, that is no longer as viable as simply settling in and fortifying our position.”
“Is it wise to use this location as a permanent base? If we are attacked by a superior force, would we not be trapped here? And what if they simply chose to burn us out?”
I gestured for Carilo to bring me a wineskin and two cups, then refocused on the princess.
“All excellent questions. To answer them in order, it is wise to use this location as a base because this is where all the factions know to find us, and we are on the fringes of the Blackhand’s territory, so the forces he can bring to bear immediately are severely limited. As for being trapped here, perhaps. However, my men have secure the back door and have scouted the alleys leading deeper into the slums, so if a force large enough to overwhelm us does appear we should be able to escape. Though, it would take quite the numbers to overcome us, considering the relative quality of our forces compared to those found here in the slums. As for your last question, they will not. I am not certain if you noticed, it was dark when we entered the slums after all, but the buildings here are very close together, and most are made of wood and straw with a stone base. In other words, a single errant blaze could turn half of the slums into cinders. Knowing as much, the Slum Lords long ago banned any use of fires in anything resembling a military role. Nobody wants to burn their home down, after all.”
The princess nodded silently, then seemed to recall something.
“You said that this place would see bloodshed sooner rather than later. How much sooner?”
I waved dismissively as Carilo handed me the wineskin and cups.
“Oh, that? Late this afternoon, so in about four hours give or take. Would you like some?”
Her eyes widened slightly, but as usual she maintained an admirable mask for someone who was little more than a child in my eyes. She accepted the cup I offered, but did not raise it to her lips, instead watching me drain my own cup and then fill it again.
“So soon? What will you do?”
“Myself? Absolutely nothing. As a matter of fact, I won’t even be present. I have a meeting planned deeper in the slums for later tonight, so I’ll be leaving within the next few hours. Not to worry though, my men know the plan. And I’ve also impressed upon them just how vital your survival is to their own, so you can rest assured that you’ll be protected.”
Still grinning at her, I downed my cup and threw it across the room at Carilo, who snatched it out of the air with hardly a glance in my direction.
“On that note, I’ll be seeing you, Katarina. I need to go prepare, and then I’ll be slipping out the back, so I doubt I’ll see you again today. Once night begins to fall, make sure you and yours stay in the upper level, preferably barred in your quarters. Never hurts to be safe, after all.”
I left before she could respond, slipping past the barricades and up the stairs to my room. There wasn’t too much for me to prepare, but a few of my blades were looking dull, and I needed to re-adjust some straps on my gauntlet before tonight’s excursion.
Honestly, I was excited- It had been awhile since I had acted totally alone, and part of me was looking forward to the freedom afforded by being totally on my own, without aid or responsibilities.
Though, I knew I would come back once I had finished my work. As tempting as freedom is, in my mind it has never matched the allure of power and the thrill of plotting and planning. At times, I have actually had to stop and question why I loved such machinations and manipulations so much. And every time, I reach the same conclusion- When one has experienced being totally at the mercy of another, being totally reliant on fate and luck, one develops a need to have control. And in my case, that need for control just happened to extend to a ludicrous degree. The same degree of say, ruling a kingdom, for example.
What? It’s just an example.