Month 1, Day 30, Saturday 5:30 p.m.
Oliver froze, deliberately keeping himself from visibly reacting to Percival’s revelation. “You have a photograph of the Raven Queen,” he repeated.
Percival nodded, clutching at his left wrist as he stepped closer. “I got it that night a few months ago, when she fought against the Morrows from that old bell tower. That time was actually an accident, too. My camera confused the lightning for a flash and triggered on its own.”
“What exactly does the photograph show?”
Percival grimaced. “It’s the view from a building a few blocks away, looking up at the Raven Queen across the street. She’s free-casting, with the spell array glowing above her hand, her cloak whipping around in the wind, and the afterimage of a lightning bolt behind her. My camera has the latest cutting-edge technology. It only takes about a second to fully capture the image, so it’s actually feasible to take photos of people and not just still objects. She’s barely blurred!”
Oliver’s voice remained tightly controlled. “Is she identifiable?”
“Well…no. It’s from quite far away, the lighting conditions are sub-optimal, and the spell array is between her face and the camera. But it’s her!”
Some, but not all, of Oliver’s tension departed. “I will need to examine the image. Have you shown it to anyone else?”
Percival fiddled with his glasses, shaking his head. “I was too afraid to. I thought she, or you, might retaliate against me if I let anyone know. They say the Raven Queen holds a grudge, and the rumors about what she does to those she doesn’t like…” He shuddered visibly. “I do not want to anger her. Or you. This isn’t some insane threat that I’ll sell the photograph to the coppers or the newspaper. But since I do have it…I thought you might be interested in buying the negative as a package deal with the one I took today.”
Oliver leaned back in his chair despite his desire to get up and snatch the photo negative cartridge from the boy’s hand. “How is it that you find yourself in these situations, Percival Irving? Are you actively searching them out? Were you following the Raven Queen? Actively trying to make contact with me today?”
Some of Oliver’s emotion leaked into his tone, and at least Percival was smart enough to recognize the danger, flinching and waving his free hand frantically in denial. “No, no! It was all a coincidence,” he said adamantly, then hesitated. “Well, perhaps not totally a coincidence, because I have…peculiar luck. Things tend to go wrong for me, all at once, in cascading, interesting ways.” The word “interesting” had the tone of a particularly vile curse word, and Percival’s lip drew up in a grimace of loathing. “I periodically find myself in the middle of events I’m not prepared to handle, that I never intended to be involved in.”
Oliver was silent, staring at him through the shadow-black eye holes of his mask.
“I’m not just saying that!” Percival assured him. “I had a run-in with a hag, and there seems to be some luck magic involved.”
“Whatever you want to call it—luck, probability manipulation, or just some force influencing my decisions or the events around me in seemingly random ways that are actually calculated and deliberate—I don’t know. Call it what you will, strange things happen around me.”
Oliver steepled his fingers together, watching the defiant boy return his gaze. “And these strange things lead to you taking photographs of important people and events?”
“Among other things, but yes. I’ve witnessed or been involved in six events that could have gotten me severely injured or even killed in the last few months alone, and which made me witness to multiple serious crimes. Seven events if you count today, I suppose. When interesting things happen, it’s like a magnet draws me in against my will.”
Oliver might have brushed the claim off as ridiculous, but he’d experienced a few things during the years he spent traveling the settled areas of the world that made him hesitate. “Tell me more.”
The boy did, in a rambling, passionate account that lasted almost twenty minutes and was actually quite entertaining. Several times Oliver had to squeeze his stomach muscles and hold his breath to keep himself from bursting out into guffaws at the ridiculous situations Percival got himself into. The boy even rolled up his sleeve to show Oliver the mysterious tattoo that had started it all.
Finally, Oliver admitted, “If what you tell me is true, it does seem that you’ve experienced a strange number of coincidences.” Anecdotal evidence was useless, of course, and the boy could be either misguided or an excellent liar. But even if the truth wasn’t verifiable, Oliver was intrigued. He made a note to keep Percival as far away from Siobhan as possible. The last thing he needed was the boy dragging her into his orbit of misfortune. She got into enough “interesting” situations without extra help. “I will buy both photographs. Did you bring the other with you?”
Percival reached into his pants pocket, pulling out some lint, a couple coins, and what must be the negative disk, which was wrapped in a thick, dark paper instead of inside a cartridge.
After verifying that it was safe to do so, Oliver unwrapped and inspected it. It was from quite far away, and a little indistinct, but still dramatic. He could make out his own form beside Siobhan, his mask a white spot agains the darkness, battle wand outstretched, with the blurred streak of a glowing spell shooting toward the silhouetted forms on the street below. “Sixteen gold for both, then?” he asked, already putting the negative back in its protective wrapping and moving both it and the cartridge into one of his desk drawers.
“Umm, that works, but I actually need the cartridge from today back? It’s got two other negatives in it that I took earlier today. Nothing you’d be interested in, just portraits of people. I saved up for the camera for a long time, but I didn’t realize how expensive the negative disks would be. Getting the photographs developed onto paper isn’t cheap, either. I’ve been trying to cover the cost by doing portraits. That’s what I was originally doing in the market today, actually.”
Oliver pulled out the cartridge, taking out the other two disks to ensure they were really as innocuous as stated.
Percival babbled nervously as he accepted them from Oliver’s outstretched hand. “I guess this camera really is paying for itself! I sent a couple of my photographs—normal ones, nothing like this—to the newspaper, but they weren’t interested in purchasing them without an interesting story to go along with the photo. The only stories I have are the kind I can’t sell for fear of retaliation, or that the newspaper wouldn’t buy for fear of retaliation!” He laughed at his own joke.
The mention of the newspaper brought to mind the old printing press Oliver had found in the Lord Morrow’s basement, covered in junk, dust and cobwebs. He stilled, his mind making connections and sparking upon an idea that hadn’t fully formed until that moment.
With some soap, lubricating oil, and maybe a bit of magic, he was sure the press could be repaired and start working again—certainly for much less than it would cost to buy a similar artifact. In fact, such an old model might even be able to be driven with manpower alone, without the need for a thaumaturge on staff. “Are you a decent writer, Percival?”
“I can read and write as well as anyone! My mom taught all us kids,” the boy said proudly.
“I don’t mean just technically. Are you engaging? Can you tell a decent story in text form?”
“…I tell stories to my siblings all the time, and they seem interested enough. I haven’t written them down or tried to get them published though, if that’s what this is about?” he said, frowning and tilting his head to the side, looking somewhat like a one-eyed owl.
Oliver leaned forward. “You’ve just given me an idea. How would you like a job as the main investigative journalist of a brand new publication, dedicated to the needs of the people and telling the truth?”
The boy blinked. “The truth?”
“Like what happened today with the coppers. The things the other newspapers aren’t interested in talking about.”
Percival straightened his head and adjusted his glasses, looking surprisingly like a disapproving schoolmistress. “You want me to help you put out a counter-factual, subversive newspaper?”
Oliver waved his hand nonchalantly. “Not counterfactual. As for subversive, well, it won’t start out like that. Baby steps. For the moment, it will give the people in my territory information about what’s happening around Gilbratha, with an emphasis on the kind of stories and information that’s relevant to them instead of the people in the Lilies. Our first issue can discuss the new initiatives the Verdant Stag is committed to. There are some really exciting things that are going to truly benefit my people, and this is a great way to make sure the word spreads clearly and truthfully.” He couldn’t keep the sudden excitement out of his voice, and had to stop himself from babbling on. That was fine for a boy like Percival, but not the kind of image the leader of the Verdant Stag could portray—not to someone who wasn’t loyal and on board with his mission yet, at least.
Percival rubbed uncomfortably at his left wrist, fiddling with the cuff of his shirt. “Umm, there’s probably a reason why there aren’t any other newspapers based around here? I don’t think there’s enough of a market for a newspaper. You’ve probably noticed how some of the shop signs are only pictures, not words? That’s because half the people around here can’t read,” he informed Oliver, trying to break the news gently.
Oliver waved that away, too. “I’m not looking to make a profit. I want to provide a service. The literate can read the articles aloud for those who aren’t, and everyone can look at the photographs. Your photographs. As long as the project can at least break even, I will be more than satisfied. The first issue can even be more like a pamphlet than a newspaper.” Oliver stood up, moving to pace beside his desk.
Percival shuffled a few inches further away from him, but Oliver paid him no mind.
“There’ll be information about the new initiatives, some advice and resources for people struggling after the recent upheaval, and if you have time, maybe an interview with one of my citizens. There are plenty of them downstairs, shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who wants to see their face in the newspaper. Why don’t you take a seat? We can get the interview with me out of the way first, since you’re already here,” Oliver said, waving to one of the chairs in front of his desk. “I’ll get you something to take notes on.”
Percival opened his mouth, closed it again, and then finally said, “But I haven’t accepted the job?”
Oliver stopped pacing. “It pays fifty gold a month, you’ll be able to write your own articles and publish your own photographs, and if things go well you might even gain subordinate journalists working under you. This is a chance to earn much more than you could taking pictures in the market while also making a difference. You would only answer to myself and the other high-ranking members of the Verdant Stag.”
Percy’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to write lies for you, Lord Stag. If your enforcers are out beating girls and murdering people, or, or…acting like those coppers earlier, I won’t pretend they’re not. If I do this, I’d want complete creative control.”
Oliver sighed internally. “I can’t have you publishing whatever stories you want. Some things would have consequences that reach further than a shift in public opinion. For example, stories about the Raven Queen might not be safe to publish. And I’m not interested in hiring a journalist who has a chip on his shoulder and wants to make the Verdant Stag look bad in every way possible. I won’t force you to print lies, however. That’s not what this is about.” He paused for a moment to think about his argument, seeing that he wasn’t getting through to the boy. “The Verdant Stag doesn’t need you to cover up our misdeeds and spray perfume on our shit. We’re better than the Morrows. We’re not like the other gangs. I am not here because I’m greedy for power. I’m here because I’m desperate to make things better. I’m determined to do so, and I’m taking real, immediate actions to that effect, and will continue to do so. And I just want you to help people understand that,” Oliver said, his voice filled with real passion and sincerity.
Percival shook his head. “That’s…not good enough. You say that now, but how can I be sure you’re not lying, or won’t change your mind?”
Oliver ran a hand through his hair and returned to pacing for a moment. “How about this? We can compromise. You’ll have veto power over stories I want to publish, and I’ll have veto power over ones you bring to the table. That way we both balance each other, though I hope that won’t be necessary. Sound good?” What Oliver didn’t say was that he could fire young Percival at any time, replacing him with someone who would do as they were told, if necessary. But he wanted Percival for the job, partially because the boy’s youthful enthusiasm seemed perfect for the kinds of messages Oliver wanted to convey, and also because of his supposed ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If it was true…that was the kind of thing that made for a spectacular, if short-lived, journalist.
Percival fidgeted for a moment, but finally nodded. “Fifty gold a month, veto power, and…I’m going to need help with the distribution and things. I might need to hire other people.”
“You will certainly need to hire other people. See if you can poach someone from one of the other newspapers. I’ll provide a budget for that, and my people can help you with the details. You’ll be required to submit a certain number of articles per issue, and we’ll want coherent sections based around different topics. Let’s try to keep it entertaining.”
“Um, I really can’t guarantee anything here. I’m not going to be held responsible for sales numbers, am I?”
“Like I said, profit is secondary. If the newspaper earns more than it spends, you can get a bonus, but all I need is for it to break even while providing a real service to my people.” Besides, if the newspaper became popular enough, it could bring in revenue not from individual sales, but from advertisements.
Finally, reluctantly appeased, Percival sat down at one of the chairs in front of Oliver’s desk. But not before testing all of the legs for stability and running his hand over the seat as if feeling for hidden needles. “Okay, then. You said you wanted to do my first interview right now? Can I publish the contents openly as ‘an interview with Lord Stag?’” As if suddenly realizing the exceptional opportunity he was being offered, he perked up. “Oh, wow. Can you get me an interview with the Raven Queen?”
Oliver chuckled, shaking his head. “We’re not starting out with anything subversive, remember? I’m providing information, but you can’t give any direct quotes from me that might indicate we met face to face. You can give ‘hearsay quotes’ from unspecified citizens in my territory, but that’s it.” Oliver handed him a pen and a fresh journal taken from one of the bookcases along the wall, its pages lined and clean. “Here, for your notes. And you won’t be meeting the Raven Queen, Percival. Ever.”
The boy pursed his lips with disappointment. “Well, if we’re going to be working together, you might as well call me Percy. Otherwise I’ll feel like I’m being scolded constantly.” He paused, the end of the pen pressing against his lips. “Percival Irving, investigative journalist and editor-in-chief,” he muttered, trying out the sound of the words. “Oh, my mom is going to be so proud!”
Oliver returned to the throne-like chair behind his desk, took a sip of coffee that was now lukewarm, and began to speak, choosing the more palatable truths and leaving out the more sensitive information.
The territory the Verdant Stag had taken over was filled with more than people. Oliver had also gained either outright ownership of or a controlling interest in various legal and illegal shops, multiple warehouses, food and entertainment facilities, and even a handful of workshops. Attached to all that came the various contracts, employees, and supply chains that kept all of it running, which was as much a blessing as it was a curse.
On the bright side, the Morrows had been profitable. Very much so. And a large portion of their resources were now in Oliver’s hands, ready for him to do with what he would.
He didn’t say that Lord Morrow’s widow had signed over almost everything she had legal control over, except for some properties well outside Gilbratha and enough money to provide a modest stipend for her and the younger children for the remainder of her life. Which could be years yet, as long as she didn’t try to go against the terms of the magical contract she had signed.
Oliver had questioned her extensively under illegal wards against untruth. The minor torture tactics he had okayed for the rest of the Morrows weren’t even necessary—though he didn’t mention that to Percy. Oliver had forced her, like her children and all the other captured Morrows that hadn’t deserved execution, to take rather restrictive vows against retaliation. Those vows, along with the signed-over assets, were exchanged for her life and freedom.
It wasn’t a perfect method, but legally, it was safer and less hasslesome than simply trying to steal the assets once owned by the various Morrows. Forcing people into contracts or vows under duress was illegal, and people could sue to regain what had been illegally taken from them. However, the vows they had made with Oliver also stated their admission of certain crimes.
Most of those who agreed outwardly but planned to betray him right away should have been caught by the prognos diviner he hired, and denied release. Those who might change their minds once they were free, despite the vow’s minor compulsion, should still think twice, both because betrayal would allow him to use their blood print to have someone place a curse on them, and because he could turn their admissions of guilt over to the coppers he now had on his payroll.
Without the resources they once had access to, the damage they could do to him would be reduced, but he was aware that the contacts and networks they’d built up over the years still existed, and he couldn’t remove them entirely. By bankrupting rather than killing, he was hoping to avoid some of the retaliatory hatred. This way, even if they had powerful contacts, or could call for help from the few powerful Morrows or family members that hadn’t been captured for aid, instead of being martyrs they would be a drain on enemy resources.
If people still tried to sue or otherwise cause him problems, then some high-profile assassinations would be in order as a warning.
He wasn’t prepared to kill when it wasn’t necessary or warranted, so this was the best solution he could come up with.
Some of those who hadn’t committed any particularly serious crimes Oliver had taken a much more moderate fine from, and others, the best of them, he was hiring for the Verdant Stags.
He had been in a position where he needed to either expand or die, and he had expanded. Now he was consolidating and tightening his grip. He had dozens of good places for the new funds and resources to be put to work.
He made sure to point out that one particular alchemical workshop that had been creating addictive substances for the Morrows was going to be turned toward a new—legal—enterprise geared toward making emergency response kits, household concoctions, and even cosmetics available to the common budget.
The income that would continue to come in from illegal substances while they transitioned would go towards a rehabilitation center, complete with healers and incentives, that he hoped would help fight against the addiction endemic among some of the worst off among his people. Rather than making the substances illegal and trying to somehow enforce that, he hoped that this might actually be a cheaper way to solve the problem. And if nothing else, it would make him look good.
When Oliver finally finished speaking, having covered the purpose and trustworthiness of his enforcers, the illegal activities and businesses that he would be cracking down on, the charitable relief options, loans, and housing available to those in need, and even his waste-removal initiative to keep the streets clean, Percy’s hand had cramped up from scribbling without cease.
“I don’t think this is all going to fit within a single pamphlet,” Percy said, staring at the pages of the new journal that he’d already filled as he massaged his stiff fingers.
“Perhaps not. You don’t need to cover everything at once, of course. But I do want an article about the trials we’ve been holding to make the Morrows accountable for their crimes, and especially the restitution being offered to the victims. I think you should do an interview with someone down below, maybe let them get their face in the paper. Pick someone enthusiastic.”
The building had been full of people since they started judging and sentencing the Morrows for their crimes.
It was making him very popular, which had been the point.
In a way, he was buying his people’s loyalty. In another way, he was trying to stimulate the economy of his territory. A study done in Daclacia, a smaller northern country, showed that a one-time infusion of cash had a huge impact on bringing people out of poverty. In most cases, the restitution he offered wouldn’t be enough for that, but sometimes the best way to help people was to give them the resources to help themselves.
“Err, about that. I’m out of fresh negative disks,” Percy admitted, giving Oliver a sheepish smile.
Oliver wrote out a note and handed it to the boy. “Take this to Katerin. Her office is at the end of the main hallway on the second floor. She’ll get you your first months’ wages, up-front. The budget for the newspaper might take a little longer, but there’s no reason not to get started right away.”
Percy frowned down at the slip of paper. “These disks are being used for the newspaper. I don’t think I should have to pay for them out of my own wages?”
Oliver paused, then sighed, rolling his eyes. “So greedy. Keep your receipt and send us the bill.”
And with that, Percy was off, ready to start a propaganda campaign that Oliver hoped would be one more solid step forward in his plan to take over the city.
Next chapter coming the first Thursday of April, 4/7. From then on, regular weekly Thursday chapters will resume.
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new website chapter comes out, and/or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8