Month 3, Day 3, Wednesday 9:10 p.m.
Oliver sat in a dim, smoky bar, a location quickly becoming all too familiar, and sipped at an amber-colored fruit juice that was nearly as expensive as liquor. He was, yet again, waiting for a meeting with Gilbratha’s premier information broker. The last few days had been less than pleasant as he pried around the edges of the truth about Siobhan’s meeting with Grandmaster Kiernan’s people and their, perhaps not-so-sudden, attack.
Kiernan’s faction didn’t take Oliver seriously, and the proof was that they hadn’t been cautious enough in their aggression. Recently, Oliver had been increasingly impressed with the utility of Lord Morrow’s little black book, and was thinking of ways to create similar leverage for himself. Really, his success was partially Kiernan’s fault. That first meeting, when they had sent Miss Canelo with the phonograph, had given him the idea.
Kiernan’s group had been so focused on the Raven Queen that they hadn’t considered what other dangers might lurk in the warehouse where they met. And so, after their attack—which had left his enforcers thankfully alive, though injured and unconscious—they had spoken freely.
Oliver had hidden three phonographs throughout the room, and after the meeting went so disastrously south, he retrieved them. Their sound-capturing membranes had been shredded by the sudden explosions of spell-fire, leaving the captured sound indistinct and marred with crackles and hisses. With three copies at his disposal, however, an assistant was able to piece together a coherent recording of Kiernan’s conversation.
It had been quite illuminating.
“They were prepared,” Kiernan had said, once the sounds of battle against the Verdant Stag guards had settled, “but not enough to overcome us. But you moved too soon. We could have gleaned more clues about her real motivations and plans.”
“She had no intention of negotiating with us,” his female companion had replied. “I think that was obvious.”
Someone else interjected. “Do you think she knows about our plans?”
“She is clever,” Kiernan had admitted, “and I cannot figure out her game. But if she truly planned to go to the High Crown, why has she not done so already?”
Someone else laughed derisively. “Does she expect Lord Pendragon to first pay tribute to meet with her, I wonder?”
There was a pause, during which Oliver assumed looks were being traded, and then Kiernan continued. “What was this meeting about for her, really? If she knows of us, she must know the Architects of Khronos will not be thwarted by this setback she engineered. We will have what we need. Our hand will write the chronicle of history.”
As far as Oliver had been able to dig up, the name “Khronos” belonged to a Titan with some kind of destructive, time-based powers. Details were hard to assemble, as Khronos either went by various names, such as Hyperion, Cronus, and Mylinos, or he was often confused with several of his contemporaries whose powers encouraged similar interpretations. So many thousands of years later, it was difficult to uncover the truth. But Oliver didn’t need to be a history expert to understand the hubris and greed of the name they had given themselves.
On Sunday, just over a day and a half after they triggered the wards on the raven messenger’s cage, Grandmaster Kiernan—ostensibly the leader of this faction—had agreed to meet with Oliver, bringing some subordinates and guards with him.
As Lord Stag, Oliver had made his position and the trouble they’d caused for him clear. Kiernan had seemed deeply frustrated by the failure of negotiations with the Raven Queen, blaming his female subordinate for going against his orders. After dumping the fault on her shoulders, he had waved the woman forward like a mother with a shy young child.
She’d bowed at a ninety-degree angle before Oliver and apologized profusely for her incendiary actions, her cheeks red and eyes glittering with shame and frustration.
As if to patch over the damage, Kiernan had pressed forward with an attempt to deepen their relationship with the Verdant Stag, offering high-level magical favors and submitting another order for all the same things they’d been buying from the Morrows.
“Speaking of the Morrows,” Oliver had said. “As you know, the majority, especially in the higher echelons, were captured alive.”
Kiernan had smiled with soulless joviality. “Yes, we’ve heard about your little ‘trials’ and the coin you’ve been throwing around in the name of restitution. Perhaps not what I would have done, but an interesting choice that has certainly yielded results for your reputation.”
“Well, we are in the process of extracting everything of value from them, from assets to…knowledge. I do not believe in waste.” Oliver had been satisfied to see the understanding in Kiernan’s eyes, and even more satisfied to see the tension that understanding caused. Oliver knew about the Architects of Khronos, as well as their treasonous activities and preparations. If they made an enemy of him, there would be consequences.
“When I finish with them,” Oliver had continued, “I will pass those who have signed nonaggression vows along to the coppers, but I would like to assure you that their tongues will be sealed from wagging about…particular topics. Those that might affect our interests, similar to what was done to one Tanya Canelo.”
This time, Kiernan hadn’t flinched at the proof of Oliver’s knowledge, but he took a few moments too long to respond, and Oliver’s peripheral vision caught a couple of Kiernan’s underlings sharing a look behind his back.
Kiernan had cleared his throat. “I very much appreciate the…honor of a man who does not kill his enemies but instead uses them. However, I would be much more comfortable if my people could assist in the sealing process. I’m sure you understand how much a man like me values his peace of mind.” He boomed out a sharp, jolly laugh. “Why, at my age, lost sleep leads to growing haggard and frail!”
Oliver agreed that they could help, if they wished, but Kiernan had more to say. “What of those who do not vow their harmlessness?” he asked. “I assume some of those in higher positions retain either loyalty or pride, despite your best efforts. And surely some you cannot trust, no matter what they vow?”
“Yes. And while I respect such dedication, they may not retain loyalty and pride in addition to their lives,” Oliver replied simply.
Kiernan had coughed, bringing a fist to his mouth. “Hmm. Perhaps we could assist with those. Do not be too hasty to throw away their lives before all avenues have been explored. I assure you, we have means that the average torturer cannot match.”
Oliver had agreed to that as well, feeling that he was beginning to grasp the edges of their goals.
And so, after more planning and promises, Kiernan and his “Architects of Khronos” had left Oliver’s office, leaving him to dig into a fresh pile of work, as unavoidable and unpleasant as a huge shit left in the middle of his bed.
He had told Kiernan, after the man continued to pry for information, that he planned to move the prisoners on the twenty-fifth of the month. He would be putting out false rumors of a plan to move them on the twentieth—bait to suss out any possible dissenters or enemies—but really, neither plan was legitimate. If things went well, he hoped to move the prisoners on the twelfth, well before the Architects of Khronos would be prepared to intervene.
It was his last test to see if their desire to cooperate was sincere.
And of course, almost immediately after returning to the University on Sunday afternoon, Grandmaster Kiernan had left again to meet with someone else. Oliver knew this—though not much more—because of his operatives within the University.
Oliver swirled the juice in his glass with a wry smile, taking an awkward sip through the piece of glass straw the bartender had inserted when he saw Oliver’s mask. Perhaps “operatives” was too extreme a word. But he was slowly building a network of informants, made up mostly of student aides and upper-term students from common backgrounds. He was gathering promising young people in administrative or assistant positions, those who needed sponsors to be able to continue their schooling, so long as they orbited the people he was really interested in.
Siobhan had been a wonderful lesson in the possible benefits of such an arrangement, though none of the handful of people in this budding network had brought him anywhere near the same level of advantages—or trouble—that she did.
Oliver covered the cost of the minimum four classes for them, as long as they agreed to work exclusively for him for at least ten years after graduation, and would provide bonuses if they sent him any particularly juicy information. He was circumspect with his recruitment, but confident in the potential of such a network. It was obvious from how the faculty treated young Miss Canelo that they did not respect people like her, and thus would fail to be properly wary. People with power often dismissed the presence of “the help.”
And so, the scattered reports he’d gotten from his handful of informants had led him to the Bitter Phoenix, with the cloying smoke in the air now filtered by the featureless mask of Lord Stag, and two of his most battle-capable enforcers sitting at a nearby table and watching for danger.
Before Oliver had finished the drink—with each sip requiring a careful balancing act of prying the bottom half of his mask away from his face while he sucked the liquid up through the glass straw—the doorman to the back room gave the bartender a nod.
At that cue, the man gave the current password to the information broker and waved Oliver on.
His bodyguards followed closely behind as Oliver moved into the large room beyond the tavern. The room was filled with even more smoke, and the people displayed a strange mix of unnatural conditions. Some were languid and mellow, some strangely joyful, but most were filled with the frenzied focus that signaled quintessence of quicksilver. He wondered how much of the information broker’s knowledge came from extrapolating particulars about his own clients. Perhaps some of these people were not addicts—or not just addicts—but working for the well-informed man.
And perhaps some of them would go to the rehabilitation center that Oliver had built from Lord Morrow’s former mansion in the city center to get help. Oliver made a note to tell his one and only journalist, young Mr. Irving, to do an article about it. He couldn’t force anyone to admit themselves, but he could make sure they knew about the opportunity to take back control of their lives.
He passed through into the smokeless hallway beyond, and then into the information broker’s room, where a secretary used a device to scan Oliver for weapons, then waved him onward to where his enforcers could not follow.
The information broker’s bald head shone like a crystal ball in the light of the lamp on his desk. He looked up with a smile from a desk even more cluttered than Oliver’s, taking off his thick spectacles. “Always good to see one of my favorite customers. I received your payment in advance. Eager, are we?”
“I think you can understand my concern.”
“Oh, well, indeed. You came to me for knowledge, and as ever, I can deliver. Though I cannot say for sure what the goal is, your suspicions of movement were correct. Someone who very much wishes to remain hidden has put out offers to some powerful mercenaries in the last few days. If you suspect them to be your enemies, now is the time to prepare.”
Author Note 10/27/22:
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