Month 2, Day 6, Saturday 4:15 p.m.
The team of enforcers currently doing their best to stand at attention in front of Oliver was comprised of fifty percent new hires, all as green as the antlers that now graced their jackets like a badge. He sighed, spinning on his heels. “Mr. Gerard, if you would take command of this operation?”
The second of his two lead enforcers nodded, slipping on a pair of leather gloves and grabbing some battle equipment off the rack on the wall.
“Make an example of them,” Oliver said clearly.
The man paused, but nodded again, meeting the eye holes of Oliver’s mask to show he understood.
One of the new enforcers gave an audible gulp in the silence that followed, but when Gerard led the way out of one of the Verdant Stag’s side entrances, they all fell in behind him.
Oliver turned to the woman sitting in a chair near the door.
She wore a cloak clutched tight over a low-cut dress that clung to her body, obviously meant to look enticing rather than ward off the cold. She met his gaze with a belligerence that reminded him of Siobhan, one eye partially obscured by the swollen, purple bruise blooming across it. Her lip was split, dried blood crusted in her nostrils, and her makeup had run and smeared, a painting of violent colors spread across the canvas of her face.
The woman probably wasn’t particularly pretty, even without her injuries, nor was she particularly young or innocent. But that didn’t reduce his anger. His mouth tightened.
She raised an eyebrow, uncowed by his mask. “What’s to be done with me, then, my lord?” she asked, her tone jaded and tired. She had been skeptical when she arrived with the enforcer who had helped her escape from the Verdant Stag’s newly acquired brothel, formerly owned by the Morrows. Her chin high and her eyes skeptical, she had watched to see what he and his people would do. Now, she gave him the tiniest quirk of a smile.
Though he knew the expression held no real joy, Oliver could respect her resilience. “You’ll stay here, at least for the evening. Longer, if needed.” He turned to the enforcer that had helped her. “Take her up to Alice in the apothecary, and then find her an empty bed for the night.”
When they had gone, Oliver let out a weary sigh, allowing his shoulders to sag. The brothel’s manager and some of the patrons hadn’t been following his new rules about acceptable treatment of their employees. Perhaps they had thought the regulations about health and safety weren’t in earnest. They had made a fatal error. The workers might have chosen to be prostitutes, as much as such a thing really was a choice in a place like the Mires, but they had not chosen to be mistreated while doing their job. Thankfully, this woman hadn’t accepted it in silence, so now they could do something about it—swiftly and brutally.
If he could set a good enough example here, perhaps it would cow some of the other troublemakers that plagued this takeover into ducking their heads.
Another young enforcer stepped into the room, leaning close to murmur to Oliver. “A Tanya Canelo is here to see you. She says she has an appointment to ‘be guided to your location.’”
Oliver squared his shoulders again and checked his pocket watch. “She’s late.” She had requested this meeting a few days before, a move he had been anticipating since he first heard that she’d been asking questions about the Raven Queen. Oliver was curious to learn if the request for contact was on her own initiative or done at the behest of the University. Either way, it was an opportunity for him. “Take her to the processing room, then bring her up to my office once she’s been searched and questioned.” He was tired and hungry, but there wouldn’t be time to eat or rest.
Oliver took a small outer hallway and the attached stairs back up to his office on the third floor. The room was less than pristine since he’d been spending quite a bit of his time working there rather than using it only for meetings. He organized the desk, putting away papers and tossing out a half-eaten sandwich he’d been unable to finish before he was called away.
When he was younger, his sister had mashed together her own quote taken from Oppenheimer and Golden: “Having a clear mind and a clear space allows you to think and act with purpose. A mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory.” She had many misquoted sayings like that, and would adjust them on the fly to fit the situation or win an argument. It had driven him crazy. He remembered sputtering with outrage at the age of nine. “You can’t just break the rules like that!” he’d told her.
Now, he would give a lot to have her here, misquoting at him. And he was more of a rule-breaker than she had ever been.
So Oliver sat, going through a much smaller stack of papers while he waited for Canelo. He stopped on a receipt of payment for an exorbitant sum to a workshop in Osham. Despite the price, he smiled. He had signed off on the purchase of several devices that would make producing low-quality cloth easier and faster, with no magic necessary. He had multiple suitable warehouses waiting to be turned into textile factories, and was only waiting on acceptance of the contract he’d sent to Lord Gervin to get started.
Seeing proof of his plans in motion relieved some of his fatigue, and he leaned back in his throne-like chair, massaging his temples. He could do this. Soon, everything would settle down, and he would finally have the resources and clout to make more substantial improvements within his territory.
A knock on the door had him sitting upright again. “Enter,” he called, speaking loud enough to be heard past the sound-dampening magic embedded into the walls and floor.
The girl, dirty blonde hair cut just past her jawline in a style similar to Sebastien’s, though not nearly so striking, looked around in surprise, her gaze freezing when it landed on Oliver—or more precisely, on his mask. She was alone. She swallowed, then said, “After all the security precautions, I was expecting to be blindfolded and led to a separate location.”
He smiled wryly under the mask, which was beginning to irritate his skin after wearing it for so long. “That is part of the precautions. You will still be escorted to a different location and go through the motions of a secret meeting there, in case anyone is following or tracking you.”
Her hands tightened around the handle of the hardened leather suitcase she carried. “Okay.”
“What have you brought?” he asked, gesturing to it.
She came forward, setting the suitcase on the edge of his desk. She opened it to show the large, complicated device inside. “This is a phonograph, a recently developed artifact that records sound and can play it back. My employers would like me to store this conversation so they can listen to your words directly.” An inch-wide strip of glittering black paper was wound between cylindrical spell arrays, but nothing moved or glowed, and the device let off no heat, a sign that it wasn’t active. “Your people already looked it over for hidden tricks.”
Of course they had. He trusted the device was safe enough, but it still piqued his ire. He let out a scoffing laugh. “This seems rather rude, especially when your employers can’t be bothered to meet with me themselves. I cannot imagine you are foolish enough to have come up with this idea on your own,” he added, a small test of her attitude.
She gave his shadow-backed mask a strained smile. “I apologize for the presumptuousness. I believe they want the phonograph recording as…insurance. The Raven Queen is known to bestow both boons and curses.”
“Is that why they sent you alone? They’re afraid she might attack them?”
Canelo shrugged. “I already met with the Raven Queen and lived, even after foolishly threatening her. I think they are hoping she has a…soft spot for me, and if not, then they wouldn’t lose anyone too important. If I die doing something suspicious, or simply disappear, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone at this point.”
That was an unexpected level of honesty, and Oliver suspected that Canelo was weaponizing her vulnerability, attempting to lower his guard and take advantage of any softheartedness. “They consider you a liability,” he stated. It was an educated guess, based on what he’d learned from both his contacts within the coppers and Sebastien.
Her lips almost disappeared as she pressed them together in a thin line. “This is a chance for me to prove my value. Things haven’t gone exactly as planned, lately. I’m meeting with you in good faith to negotiate, hoping to repair the situation.”
He stared back at her for a few long seconds, then nodded. “You won’t use this,” he stated, gesturing to the phonograph. He didn’t know what else was recorded on the thing before their meeting, or what might be recorded afterward. Even if he spoke with Canelo in vagaries that couldn’t be used as evidence of any crimes, it was still stupidly risky. They could try to use it as blackmail, or even just to cast divination spells to suss out his secrets. “If the exact wordings of our conversation were so necessary, they should have sent the people who needed to know. This is an insult. Place it outside the door.”
Canelo complied quickly and without argument, her movements stiff, a sign that she was forcing herself not to betray her genuine emotions through sloppy body language. An inexperienced negotiator, but not incompetent. Returning, she sat tentatively in a chair before his looming desk and clasped her hands together in her lap. “I sincerely hope that we can still come to a mutually beneficial agreement.”
“I hope the same,” he replied truthfully, though he suspected his ideas about what that could entail might be broader than hers. “I believe there are many ways in which our interests could align. What, specifically, did your employers send you to discuss?”
“My unnamed employers had an agreement with the Morrows to provide supplies and the occasional favor. This was extremely lucrative for the Morrows, and offered them opportunities they might not have otherwise come by so easily.” Canelo spoke confidently, and he suspected that she had rehearsed this. “It seems your agreement with the Nightmare Pack allowed you to take over the majority of the Morrows’ hold on the smuggling industry. Are you interested in continuing the arrangement with my employers? Without them, you will struggle to find buyers for all those goods.”
“With the Crowns’ tariffs and restrictions making certain products unusually rare or prohibitively expensive, I’m sure I could unload everything eventually, and there are plenty of other things I could import that don’t require the University’s purchasing ability. I actually have quite a few ideas.”
Canelo’s knuckles whitened briefly. “My employers had already provided payment for the previous shipment of supplies that you seized.”
“Yes. I have extensive records of all the Morrows’ transactions. I believe thirty percent was paid up front, with the rest due upon delivery. I would be willing to honor that.” It was both a warning not to try and cheat him and a threat that he had blackmail material on their illegal doings that might be used if they moved against him. Some of the University’s supply orders were quite incriminating, such as the sudden request for beast cores in bulk. “To be clear, I am interested in working with the University, even if only to avoid the hassle of pivoting the business so soon, but further cooperation will need to be negotiated. As for providing the occasional favor, I’m open to that on a case-by-case basis, with proper compensation.” Having the University on his side in the Verdant Stag’s power struggle against the Crowns might prove quite useful.
“There are other operators who could provide what the University needs,” Canelo said, apparently giving up on maintaining plausible deniability about who her employers were.
Oliver leaned back in his throne-like chair. “Sure. Eventually. But none of them are so perfectly positioned to provide as the Verdant Stag. I’m not an unreasonable man, Miss Canelo. But I will neither be bullied nor taken advantage of. If the University wants to deal with me, they are welcome to do so in good faith.”
She leaned forward, swallowing heavily. “I agree that we should deal with each other in good faith. The potential upside is too great, for both parties, to sully it with schemes and ruses. As a show of their commitment to this alliance, my employers are prepared to offer you significant aid in cementing your control of your new territory. Wards, artifacts, or even a large, no-interest loan. My personal services are also available to you, should you have need of them.”
“And in return?”
Canelo hesitated. She seemed to realize the display of anxiety she was putting on, unclasping her white-knuckled hands and laying them flat on her knees. She looked around, to the corners of the room and the window, then back to him. “I want to make it clear, I do not mean to offend you…or her. I’m just carrying out my duties as an intermediary.”
Oliver’s eyebrows rose with interest, and he sat forward, leaning his elbows on the desk and steepling his fingers together. “Go ahead, say what they have instructed you to. I will not blame you.”
Canelo’s eyes narrowed. “And her?”
“Well, I do not control her. But she is not here to listen, and even if she learns whatever you fear passing on, I doubt her anger would be aimed at you.”
Canelo seemed to find this reassurance enough, nodding absently to herself. “They want to know where the book is. The one the Raven Queen stole.”
“I do not know where it is, nor how to find it,” he lied easily. “I’m unable to help with that. Surely they don’t think I’m able to succeed where both they and the coppers have failed? And even if I could, I’m not sure that the risk would be worth it.”
“And the Raven Queen herself? D-do you know her location?” the young woman pressed on, her voice breaking.
Emotionally, Oliver rejected the idea of betraying Siobhan immediately, but he still stopped to consider it. No, he was bound too closely to her to sell her out. She was privy to too many of his vulnerabilities, and neither the University nor the Crowns could be allowed to gain that knowledge. Besides, she was his asset, and he didn’t want to trade her away, no matter what they offered. The Verdant Stag didn’t need them anyway. He and his people would rise on their own. “If you are suggesting that I should betray her, that’s impossible. Or rather, I’m unwilling. It’s a very bad idea, for both of us.”
Canelo nodded, letting out a slow, shaky breath. The girl wasn’t doing a very good job of pretending loyalty to her employers, which had to be at least partially on purpose. Perhaps she hoped to keep from being blamed for their decisions, or perhaps it was a subtle hint that she could be turned, given the right incentive. “Would you be willing to facilitate contact with her? I’ve tried previously but met…roadblocks.”
Oliver suppressed the urge to smile. He’d heard of Lord Lynwood’s order that none of his people even speak her name to outsiders, after Oliver had relayed Siobhan’s request that Lynwood suppress gossip about her from the Nightmare Pack’s enforcers. That, along with the rumors that she could hear when her name was spoken, no matter where she was, had led to some interesting results. “I can pass along your request, but I cannot guarantee anything. If she agrees, you will want to have a suitable tribute prepared as payment for her presence. Perhaps there is some way she and the University can come to an agreement.” That would be ideal, and it sparked excitement within him. A true alliance with them could push forward his plans by years.
“I understand. Please let me know as soon as possible,” she said.
“Should we discuss the details of our future cooperation, independent of the Raven Queen?” Oliver suggested. “Perhaps you aren’t able to sign off on agreements or make vows on their behalf, but it would save time if you could leave here today with a reasonable proposal. And if they are amenable, I have some ideas about how we could collaborate in other ways.”
Canelo seemed relieved by the change in subject, and after some negotiation that left the Verdant Stag in a slightly better position than the Morrows had accepted, she stood and gave him a deep bow. “If that is all, I will take my leave. Thank you for your time, Lord Stag.”
“Actually, there is one more thing,” he said, rising and moving around the imposing desk to lean against its front edge.
She remained standing, her eyes flicking to his empty hands as if searching for potential danger. “Yes, my lord?”
“I would like you to consider working for me in a more immediate capacity. I’m not sure what led you to your current position, or how they are compensating you, but I also have both power and influence, and am in need of competent employees with…specialized access. I’m willing to work around whatever restrictions you may be under, or even attempt to break them entirely.”
Her eyes widened, her lashes fluttering in shock. “You believe there will be future enmity with my employers, then?”
He shrugged, slipping his hands into his pockets. “I am not planning on it, but it is always good to be prepared. I’m sure they will attempt something similar with my own people. They don’t seem to trust me very much, after all,” he said, allowing himself a wry smile, even if she couldn’t see it. “Unfortunately for them, I treat my people much better than they treat you.”
“I…” She swallowed. “It’s too dangerous.”
“More dangerous than the alternative? I would not consider you expendable. And if your employers make foolish choices, the Raven Queen would know not to lay that upon your head.” It was as much a threat as it was persuasion, but he kept his voice gentle.
“I have no wish to anger you or her, but my employers… They have taken measures against betrayal, and the consequences would be severe. Also, I need what they’re offering me.”
Oliver almost kept pushing, but thought better of it. “Well, keep my offer in mind. There are ways around all kinds of restrictions, and perhaps they are not the only ones who can provide you what you need.” Better to let doubt and discontent slowly fester in Canelo’s mind than be seen as desperate. And after all, he wanted to hire someone who didn’t immediately jump to betrayal when an opportunity revealed itself. “My men will take you to an undisclosed location to hold your official ‘meeting’ with me. You’ll be expected to stay in that location with my proxy for at least half an hour before returning to the University. Just in case you’re being followed.”
Before she left, Canelo stopped. “I didn’t tell anyone that the Raven Queen herself was attending the secret meeting. They know that you probably have an agent that attends to make purchases for you, and that she found me on my way back, but that’s it. So if she wishes to continue attending as if nothing happened…” The young woman trailed off meaningfully, gave him a deep nod, and left before he could reply.
Oliver’s empty stomach gurgled audibly. He considered having food brought up from the kitchen below, but he had other engagements that required him to be Oliver Dryden that evening, not Lord Stag. Slipping on his jacket, he opened the door and nodded to Huntley, who was standing guard in the hallway outside.
With all the precautions against being followed or recognized, it took longer to arrive at Dryden Manor than he would have liked.
Sharon, his cook, was on her way out the door when he arrived, but she took one look at him and went straight back into the house, taking his jacket and shooing him up to his office. “Dinner’s a nice stew, still lukewarm. I’ll heat it up and serve it to you within minutes, Mr. Dryden!” she called.
Oliver stoked the embers in the fireplace, adding more wood, then poured himself a tumbler of whisky and took a sip, relishing the burn as it settled into his stomach.
This subversive University faction had the resources to keep a large smuggling operation afloat, and having influence in the educational sphere would be a valuable long-term investment. It was yet to be seen if their end-game goals could coexist, as the University was part of the entrenched authority that he wanted to rip open so that its metaphorical guts could spill out and feed the people. It was obvious, too, that they didn’t consider the Verdant Stag an equal, sending only a lackey with a recording device to meet with him. The lack of respect was worrying, especially when paired with the fear he believed they felt toward the Raven Queen.
Some fresh correspondence waited at the edge of Oliver’s desk. For a moment he wished he could ignore it, but then he noticed Lord Gervin’s signature on the envelope the servants had placed at the top of the stack.
Eagerly, Oliver broke the seal. He had been waiting on approval for a sub-commission to produce low-quality textiles en masse for a while. The envelope was a little thinner than he had expected, but perhaps the contract itself wasn’t included. He might have to go to the Edictum Council Hall to sign the paperwork.
He read the hasty but still elegant penmanship of Lord Gervin’s secretary, then the Fourth Crown’s signature at the bottom. Oliver’s stomach clenched around a sudden, nauseating ball of ice, despite the liquor that had been warming him only seconds before.
“Denied?” he whispered. Oliver’s request for a sub-contract from the Family that, by law, controlled the textile industry had been turned down almost perfunctorily. Lord Edward Gervin had taken an Erythrean horse as a gift and still denied him. The man hadn’t even bothered to write the note himself. It was a significant slight.
Oliver absently registered a knock on his office door, but he was too busy reading the note once more, as if hoping its contents would change, to answer.
He had already earmarked the warehouses, already ordered the machines from Osham, already planned for the jobs and income this would provide.
The door opened as Oliver set the note down. He picked up his whiskey, took another sip, and, as his shock turned into sudden, overwhelming rage, he screamed and hurled the half-full glass against the wall.
Sharon screamed in response, jumping so hard she spilled his dinner all over the floor. “Mr. Dryden,” she started, breathless and shocked.
“Get out!” he bellowed, not even looking at her.
She jumped again, but didn’t stop to pick up the bowl of spilled stew off the ground, holding the dinner tray like a shield as she fumbled her way backward through the door and closed it.
He heard her heavy footsteps hurrying down the stairs soon after.
Oliver pressed both palms flat to the desk, breathing hard. This was a significant problem. He realized now that he shouldn’t have been so hasty in implementing plans. Lord Gervin had seemed so amenable when they discussed his intentions, and with the bribe, Oliver had thought it a sure thing, only waiting on the slow bureaucratic process to hash out the details and sign the contracts.
“Calm down,” he told himself. “This is not the end of the world. Perhaps something happened. If I can just speak to Lord Gervin in person…” If that didn’t work, he could try to continue in secret, running the business entirely under the Verdant Stag rather than through his legal persona. That was risky—the kind of thing that brought the harsh fist of the law down upon people, like a hammer on the head of a nail. It could allow the Crowns to seize all the Verdant Stag’s holdings.
Alternatively, he could find a different path entirely. If he canceled the machine order now, he might be able to recoup most of his costs.
He brought his hands up, roughly rubbing his face with his palms. He let out a deep sigh, his shoulders sagging. He headed toward the door, stepping over the steaming stew spilled over the floor and rug. He could clean that up later. More importantly, he hoped that he could catch Sharon before she got too far. Oliver needed to apologize to the poor woman.
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