The central quarter was a far cry from its cousin to the west- Smaller, far more compact, and noticeably cleaner. Where in the western quarter there was quite the variety of detritus, human or otherwise, here in central I could hardly spot a beggar or cripple. Velera had always valued cleanliness, a byproduct of her upbringing I suppose, but the degree to which she insisted upon keeping her territories clean almost impressed me.
I shook my head, then strode forward and threw the double doors of Velera’s favorite brothel, The Hidden Path, wide open. Behind me, Jules kicked one of the door guards out of her way and followed me, leading the rest of my little party. I had decided against splitting up this evening- Velera was far more capable than the Blackhand when it came to things such as strategy and planning, meaning I couldn’t just leave my men behind to fend for themselves.
Besides, it would be an interesting experience.
I glanced down to my right, where the princess strode beside me, ensconced in a black cloak worth more than the last two streets we had walked down. Behind her came the maid, and the knight strode along on her left, ever the watchful puppy.
Smirking, I turned my gaze forward again to drink in the sights of the smoke-filled brothel. Oh, don’t worry- I didn’t light this one on fire, Velera just happened to also be the slums largest, and only, dealer of Stoneweed. Through the smoke flowing from pipes and braziers, I could make out the low shapes of southern floor-cushions and the similarly short tables that characterized the region. The brothel was almost totally empty, as I had expected it to be- The door guards had been lightly equipped, and totally untrained. In other words, not regular servants of Velera, who prioritized effectiveness second only to loyalty.
Sitting at one low table near the very back, I could make out two shadows and an impressive spread of food. Grinning, I gestured for my men to spread out and secure the room while myself and the princess’s party made for the table.
Oh, and Jules, though I didn’t tell her to.
As we neared the table, it became easier to see who exactly was waiting for us. One was a slight man, with a shorn head and an impressive scar running over his left eye, leaving it closed and presumably empty. He sat with a stillness that most would have found disconcerting, and his good eye blazed with both intelligence and a force of will that only a few others I knew could match.
One of those few sat beside the man, in the form of a tall woman with long brown hair and a full figure, a single thin scar tracing down her elegant cheek.
I settled at the other end of the table, directly across from Velera, and gestured the princess to my right and Jules to my left. The maid and the knight remained standing, hovering nervously near their young charge, and I had to suppress a chuckle as an unbidden comparison to mother hens floated through my mind.
Letting that thought drift away, I looked from Velera’s steely gaze to the man, and then back again.
“Velera! How have you been? It’s been so long! And you must be Kail, tell me, how do you do?”
Silence greeted my words as Velera grimaced and the man smiled slightly. I groaned comically in response.
“Oh, come now! We can hardly have a discussion like civilized people if two of the parties refuse to speak, now can we? I mean really, if you’re going to be like this, I might as well go back to burning down the slums!”
That got under Velera’s skin.
“You sick son of a bitch. As though you didn’t do enough harm the last time you came through here!”
I wagged my finger in a condescending manner.
“Actually, I’ll have you know- I didn’t even get through half of my plans the last time I came here. And also, you are in the presence of nobility, so do watch your language.”
She snorted violently.
“Nobility? Ha! Some other poor girl that you plucked off the streets, promising hope and salvation like some goddamn angel!? Little girl, you’d be better off just ending it yourself.”
I grinned, humorlessly this time.
“It would do you well to remember two things, Velera. One, I did deliver you both hope and salvation- Look how far you’ve come from that broken girl in a back alley. And two, don’t ever speak that way before this little girl again, unless you want me to flay you alive for insulting the royal family.”
I enjoyed watching them slowly figure out the meaning behind my words- Neither of them were particularly slow mind you, but it did take longer than I had expected before expressions of shock and amusement replaced masks of confusions. I suppose it was just that strange, finding out that the small girl sitting quietly in a brothel in the slums was actually a princess of the kingdom, albeit a rather powerless one.
As Velera’s eyes widened to an almost comical extent, and a deep furrow formed on the man’s brow, I reached across the table to snag a wooden platter of steaming stuffed buns. Dragging the platter back, I plucked one of the buns off the pile and smelled it carefully, allowing my nose to be filled with the smell of roasted meats and herbs, alongside the delicious aroma of freshly-fried dough. However, I ignored those scents for the moment and instead focused on finding any hint of a floral smell- A sure sign of Velera’s preferred poison. Finding none, I drew one of my smaller blades and sliced the bun in half, quickly inspecting the contents for any sign of tampering or foul play. Once again finding none, I reached out and snagged another wooden platter, this one empty, and set the inspected bun atop it. I set that platter before the princess, before repeating the process thrice more, setting one platter before myself and handing one back to both the maid and the knight. I received silent glares in response, and I chuckled.
“Willhemet, what the hell are you thinking!?”
Oh? It seemed as though Velera had found her voice.
“Whatever could you mean, my dear Velera? And just to point out, you are still being extremely rude to a member of the royal family.”
I watched in silent amusement as Velera struggled with her temper for a few moments.
“You know what I mean, Willhemet! Why on earth would you involve a member of the Von Shelsburgs in our business!? How did you even meet her in the first place?”
At that, the princess looked up from the meat-filled bun, which she had been examining with a purely intellectual interest. I took the opportunity to bite into my own bun, savoring the taste of the herb-coated meat and the near-burning grease that filled my mouth.
“We met in the dark, to the sound of blades and the smell of bloodshed. And Willhemet did not involve me in your business. Rather, he has involved you in mine.”
For the first time, Velera took a proper look at the princess, and I could see the surprise hidden in her gaze. No doubt, she was noting how similar the princess was to her own little messenger. I decided to speak up, before she could bring up the topic. No need to confuse the situation further.
“In all honesty, Velera, I am not here to continue my plans from last time. As far as I am concerned, all of that is in the past. I am here on a different mission- A mission of unification and absorption, rather than one of evolution and conflict. To put it more simply, I am going to consolidate the slums into one entity, an entity formed with the singular purpose of supporting and propelling the third princess of Bradenia, Katarina Von Shelsburg, onto the throne of Bradenia.”
This time, there was no stunned silence. At least, not from Velera.
“You are insane. Completely and utterly insane.”
“Probably. However, that changes nothing. And besides, my sanity or lack thereof isn’t the question here.”
For the first time, the one-eyed man who I presumed to be Kail spoke up. His voice was raspy, but strong.
“If you don’t mind me askin’ then, what is the question here? Why did you ask us here, and then essentially give us a warnin?”
“Because unlike that oaf Oren, you two could actually be useful. Velera, I know you have quite a bit of antipathy lurking within you when it comes to myself. But I’m not asking you to serve me. Rather, I am asking you to serve milady as Mistress of the Low Quarters, an unofficial position that I intend to officially create and invest with the responsibilities of maintaining public health and infrastructure in the commoner sections of the Kingdom’s cities. You would essentially be the first female Third Minister, which is a position I intend to dismantle and divide into more manageable chunks. For such a centralized state, Bradenia desperately needs more competent administrators and ministers. You would also have the freedom to pick your own staff, and you would have some say in the Kingdom’s Infrastructure council, as well as a title that would allow you to answer directly to the queen.”
I chuckled as Velera settled into a stunned silence, and then turned to Kail.
“As for you, Kail, I have a slightly different offer. I get the feeling that you don’t want a position with such a public eye upon it, and quite frankly I don’t know that it would suit you regardless. Instead, I am asking you to serve as the Queen’s Blade, head of the Queen’s shadow corps. The official title would simply be Junior Diplomatic Minister, and on parchment your forces would be a minor branch of the Kingdom’s diplomatic corps. In practice however, Bradenia has a lot of enemies that cannot be touched with an army, so having blades and ears in the dark that can act with a relatively large degree of autonomy is vital to the Kingdom’s security. You would report directly to me, so that the queen would have a degree of separation in the case of a scandal, but you would have an essentially unlimited budget and a small set of lodgings in the castle proper. We’d also set you up with some titles as thanks for ‘successful negotiations,’ which would allow you to move through the upper society with relative ease.”
He was smirking before I finished speaking.
“And what makes you think I won’t simply sell you out the minute I leave? Information like this could be worth a hell of a lot more than some pipedream.”
It was my turn to smirk.
“Because as it stands, you are at very little risk so long as you support us from the shadows, and by the time you are in a position to lose something by openly supporting us, our goal would no longer be a pipedream. Besides, do you really want play around here forever? Killing petty nobles and corrupt merchants for a pittance? Your crew is good, Kail, but they need a larger stage to truly shine from. And there is no stage larger than that of kings and queens.”
I had him, I could see it in his eye. There was a hunger there, and pride, neither of which could be satisfied by staying here in the shadow of the slums. And I wasn’t lying, either- His crew was good, I’d seen some of their work. And while I would be removing Kail from the board eventually, there was no harm in letting him taste the fruit that currently hung just out of his reach.
No, Kail wasn’t going to be an issue. Velera, however…
“How can you actually think that this will succeed? Titles and positions are all grand things, but they mean nothing if you aren’t in a position to bestow them. I may not have your ungodly ability to collect information, Willhemet, but even I have heard the rumors- The succession war, the three princes and their factions… How could you ever plan to compete with them?”
I popped the last of the bun into my mouth and reached for another.
“The beauty of it is, Velera, that I don’t intend to. I will mobilize the slums under your command to increase our economic base and our manpower reserves, and I will utilize Kail and his crew to quietly gather information and remove key figures from the board. Personally, I will move within the castle to play the princes against each other, and once they fall into open conflict I will move to secure alliances and advantages that will allow us to increase our political clout. And finally, after all the other factions have finished tearing each other to shreds and one stands, bloodied and victorious, we will pounce from the shadows to claim our victory- And the throne.”
Or perhaps not- Plans depend as much on circumstances and luck as they do actual planning. But the key here was to present a confident, capable, and ambitious face, the same sort of face I had presented when I first enticed Velera to join my plans for the slums.
I watched the conflict play across her face, storms over an open field.
“How… How can I ever trust you, Wilhemet? How do I know that you won’t just betray us and cast us aside the moment we don’t suit your plan? How do I know you won’t do that again?”
I raised my hand, and extended three fingers.
“Three reasons- First reason, despite your misgivings and the risks, you know I am capable of seeing this plan to fruition, and there is far more good you can do with a royal position and decree than with a collection of brothels and orphans.”
I folded one finger down.
“Second reason, you won’t be serving me. You will be serving the third princess, milady Katarina Von Shelsburg, and that means the laws will actually be on your side for once. I have no right to dismiss a direct servant of the princess, and later of the queen. You will serve entirely at her pleasure, or not at all.”
I folded another finger down, leaving only one standing in the smoky air.
“The third, and final, reason is this- I am not doing this for amusement. I am not doing this for some idle reason, nor do I intend to simply leave once the plan is complete. This is genuine ambition, Velera, and you should know better than anyone just how dedicated I am to achieving my ambitions. To that end, as long as you remain useful and loyal, I have no reason to do away with you.”
I lowered my finger, and grinned.
“Just think of this as your chance to forever surpass me. If you outperform me, then milady might just see fit to prefer your council over my own.”
I could feel Katarina’s gaze upon me, but I ignored her for the moment. Instead, I matched gazes with Kail first, and then Velera.
“Well? I am afraid that I will need your responses here and now- We have spent far too long here, and there are matters back at the castle that require my personal attention.”
Such as educating the princess in matters of economics, philosophy, and intrigue. But those were matters for the future, and for now I needed to either secure the slums under my chosen puppets- Or kill both of them, and install somebody else. Beneath the table, I palmed one of my throwing knives.
That came from Kail, and I smiled, pleased. He would be a useful tool in the months and years ahead, and the longer I could use him the longer I had to find a suitable successor for his duties. Once a name was on my list, it could never be removed.
“Grand, grand, I’d assumed that you’d agree. Don’t worry, we already have some work lined up with you and yours. Go and get your crew ready- I plan to have you and a handful of your best men occupy a house we happened to acquire, one that has very good access the the castle grounds. The remainder of your men will act as though it’s business as usual for the time being, though I intend to find jobs for all of them soon enough. You’ve made the right choice, my friend.”
Kail nodded once, then stood in one fluid motion and slipped away into the smoke. Moments later, I heard a wooden door thud shut. I turned my attention to Velera, who still seemed to be wrestling with something.
“Velera dear, just consider this- I am not asking you to trust me, I know that would be an exercise in futility. Rather, I am asking you to trust in your own abilities and my ambitions. So long as you are useful, I will use you and protect you. And just think of all the good you can do for your beloved orphans! You will be able to aid the downtrodden in not just these slums, nor just this city, but all the cities of the kingdom!”
She paused a moment longer, then shook her head, like a dog shakes its head to shoo away the nats buzzing in its eyes.
“Fine! I’ll play your little game, Willhemet. I’ll serve your princess, before and after she sits that damn throne. But know this- If I ever even think you are going to betray me again, I’ll drive a blade so far through your back you’ll be able to use it as a writing desk.”
“Wonderful. I’ll be able to do paperwork anywhere.”
She grimaced, and stood as well.
“I’m going to get my people going- We’ve already grabbed most of the Butchers’ territories, so all that’s really left to do is absorb the gangs and set some rules. Give me a week, and then I’ll be set to handle whatever orders you give me. I’ll send you a messenger when I’m ready, and she’ll serve as our go-between. And Wilhemet?”
“Get the hell out of my building.”
My laughter followed her into the smoke.
The party moved in silence through the night, not for any spoken order, but rather simply out of respect for the grim mood enveloping myself and the princess. We both knew that the gears were going to be turning quickly now, and there was no going back. We had announced our intentions to others, and moved to make them reality, even while knowing that blood would flow as a result. That sat heavily upon her small shoulders, while mine were held rigid by excitement. It had taken so many gambles, so many lucky breaks to make it this far, but at last I had my foot in the door. I could now truly count myself among those who played with the fates of empires, actors on a grand stage of shadows. And even then, this was only the beginning. My hunger was nearly as endless as my madness, and what I wanted went far beyond some role as an advisor to a young queen.
No, this was only the beginning, my dear readers, only the beginning of the madness that would soon drench the Shattered lands in blood and tears.
As our line of shadows slipped into the home concealing the passageway into the castle, a bell tolled the changing of the watch, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.
ThIs WaS goInG tO be SO muCh fUn.