Month 11, Day 24, Tuesday 8:30 p.m.
As Oliver stepped into the Verdant Stag well after dark, his mask concealing his features, a man lunged out of the shadows beside the door and grabbed onto him.
Oliver reached for his battle wand immediately, sinking down into a fighting stance. He stopped himself just before shooting the man with a concussive blast, registering the man’s plain clothing, lack of weapon, and the desperate look on his bruised face. “Release me,” he said instead.
The nearby patrons of the inn had turned to look at them, alarmed. The tense silence was already spreading out through the rest of the large room.
The man released Oliver’s arm and stepped back, bowing deeply. He straightened and then bowed again. “Forgive me, Lord Stag. I meant no harm, only I need your help. I’m desperate. Please, sir. The Morrows, a couple o’ their boys took my daughter as we were coming home from the temple o’ the Radiant Maiden. It was outside o’ Stag territory, there weren’t any of the green flags to pull for help. I tried to stop ‘em, but there were too many. They hit me down, but I was still and quiet, and when they left, I got up and followed ‘em and saw where they took ‘er. She’s in a house off the docks, and I don’t know what they might be doin’ to ‘er, but she were screamin’ as they dragged ‘er away—” The man choked on his words and bowed a couple more times.
Oliver laid his hand on the man’s shoulder, keeping him from bowing any more. “Breathe. Speak slowly. How long ago was this?”
The man trembled as he looked up into the dark eye-holes of Oliver’s mask. “An hour at most. I came straight here once I seen where they took ‘er.”
Oliver nodded sharply. “Alright. Follow me.” He strode toward a hallway leading to the back, past the bar and the stage.
The man continued to stammer as he hurried to keep up. “My neighbor Stuart said he came to you when his wife were attacked, and you got ‘er all healed up and got the people who did it arrested, neat as you please. And he told me the price weren’t too high.” He reached into a pocket, pulling out a half-full coin purse. “I’ve got twelve gold, sixty-seven copper saved up. I was hopin’ to send my daughter to get the readin’ and writin’ certification in a few years, but—” He held the money out to Oliver. “If you can save ‘er, it’s yours. I don’t know if it’s enough, but I’m willin’ to owe you, and I promise I’m good for it. I’ll pay you back if it’s the last thing I do, I swear, if you can just save ‘er—”
Oliver spun, throwing open a door.
The one-handed man behind the desk looked up from the report he’d been writing with painstaking slowness, unperturbed. “Mr. Oliver,” he greeted.
Oliver dragged the man with the kidnapped daughter into the room with him. “Mr. Gerard, some Morrows have taken this man’s daughter. He can lead you to the place they’re holding her. It’s been an hour. Assemble a team and head out immediately.”
The man stood, fountain pen forgotten on the desk. He strode off through the door at the back of the room, shouting names and orders, and the men in the room beyond scurried to jump up and equip their supplies.
Oliver turned to the man beside him, who now had tears in his eyes.
He tried to shove the purse at Oliver again.
Oliver pushed it back to him, speaking perfunctorily, any compassion in his tone well hidden. “You can pay afterward. It’ll be fifty gold, due to the danger of the mission. The Verdant Stag will be loaning you the full amount. This includes the cost for any healing your daughter may need.”
The man tried to bow again, and Oliver stopped him by gripping his shoulder, forcing him to look into the eye-holes of his mask. “This loan will have interest,” he continued. “If you cannot afford the payments on your own, we will find a way for you to repay what you owe. Additionally, you will owe the Verdant Stag a favor,” he said forebodingly. “At some point, the Stags may have need of you. If—when—this happens, you will set aside your hesitation, eschew your own comfort, and disregard the risk to come to our aid. This is the price for our help today.”
The man didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Yes. I agree.”
“If your daughter cannot be saved…”
The man gritted his teeth, blinking rapidly.
“The culprits will be brought to justice. The debt will still be in effect. Do you still agree?”
Pale-faced, he nodded, swallowing hard.
“Good.” Oliver released his shoulder. “You may accompany the rescue team. You will stay back. Do not impede their work, or you might place your daughter in danger. Mr. Gerard is in charge. You will listen to him unconditionally.”
The man nodded rapidly. “Yes, yes.”
The rescue team, now fully kitted out, stomped back through the door.
“Perfect timing,” Oliver muttered. He nodded to them. “Go.”
The man hurried to keep up with Oliver’s team of enforcers as they ran down the hall and left through one of the Verdant Stag’s side entrances.
Oliver sighed, lifting his mask with one hand to rub his forehead with the other. He’d forgotten to tell the man that there was no need to wait for him, specifically. Any of the citizens within his territory could come to the Stag to ask for help at any time, reporting directly to the person currently in charge of the area they needed assistance in. He turned, going back through the entertainment hall—where once again people took their attention from the performance on stage and their alcohol to stare as he passed by—and up the stairs towards Katerin’s office.
He almost stumbled on Theo, who was crouched at the top of the stairs, gripping the railing as he looked down on the room below. Theo was watching the amateur play being performed on stage. A slate board and nub of chalk lay forgotten by his side, the simple math problems on them only half finished.
The boy pulled his head back through the railing. He grinned up at Oliver and jumped to his feet, unperturbed by the mask. “Mr. Oliver! Did that man need help? I saw you take him back toward the enforcers’ station. Did they go on a mission?”
“Some bad people kidnapped his daughter. They’re going to get her back now.”
“Awesome! Well, I mean, not that they kidnapped her, but it’s a rescue mission! That’s not the most awesome type of quest, but a lot of the epic stories have at least a little bit about needing to save a damsel in distress. I wonder if she’s pretty,” the child mused, looking into the middle distance as his imagination took over.
“People deserve help whether they’re pretty or not, you know,” Oliver said, stepping past the boy.
Theo turned to follow immediately, his schoolwork forgotten at the edge of the stairwell. “Well, of course,” he said in a tone that questioned Oliver’s intelligence. “But it’s a little more interesting when they’re pretty, don’t you think?”
Familiar dark eyes flashed in Oliver’s mind, but he hummed noncommittally.
“Say, do you think I could get a utility wand?” the boy asked, slyly watching Oliver out of the corner of his eye. “It’s dangerous on the streets,” he continued quickly. “I mean, just this week we’ve had a ton of people come in for help. A man got his leg crushed down on the docks. He went to a sham healer who just made it worse, and his friends brought him in to use one of our contacts, but by that time it was too late and his leg still had to be cut off. Wouldn’t it be better if I don’t have to have any limbs amputated?”
Oliver almost stumbled, but the boy didn’t seem to notice his stupefaction, and continued on as if his reasoning was entirely logical.
“Yesterday, a woman came in asking for help to scare off the men coming around her house asking for ‘taxes’ and threatening her. What if someone tries to mug me? I need to be able to defend myself, or at least get away.”
“Do you think it’s likely you will be mugged?” Oliver asked, keeping his voice even.
“Well, who knows? It’s better to be prepared, right? It would be too late to regret it once it actually happened. Plus, I heard Katerin talking about you getting mugged a while back, so obviously these things happen. And it’s not like I’m definitely safe just because I live in Stag territory. There’s a fight club on Dorset Lane that pulls people in off the street sometimes when they’re low on volunteers for the matches. Katerin sent Mr. Gerard out to deal with it, since they’re doing crime in our territory without permission.”
Oliver was half amused, half serious as he said, “That does sound serious.” He doubted the Morrows would be so bold or depraved as to go after a child, but that didn’t mean Theo wouldn’t run into a situation where he needed a little extra help. It was a dangerous world, and he was surrounded by people in a dangerous line of work.
The boy nodded gravely. “A woman was knocked into the canal by one of the Crowns who was galloping his horse in the street. She breathed in some water and got pneu-mo-nia.” He enunciated the unfamiliar word carefully, looking to Oliver to make sure he understood. “She had to spend all the money she was saving for her wedding on potions, and her fiance even started crying because he’d thought they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Wouldn’t it be much cheaper to pay for my utility wand now than pay for the healing fees when I get pneumonia?” Theo nodded seriously, dropping a fist into his other palm with satisfaction at his argument, then stared at Oliver with big eyes, as if he could make him agree through sheer force of will.
“Do you have an idea what spells you’d want in this utility wand?” Oliver asked, trying to keep the amusement from his voice.
Theo grinned so wide his eyes turned into slits, nodding rapidly. “Oh, yes! I’ve got a list in my room. Do you want to see it?”
Oliver waved him down before he could run off. “Not just yet. I’ll talk to your aunt Katerin about it and see what she thinks. If she approves, I’m sure it won’t be for free. You’ll have to be prepared to earn it.”
Theo was completely undeflated. “Yes! I can do anything. I’m already good with my sums. I could do the accounting for the Verdant Stag, or I could do deliveries, or I could even scrub the floors.”
Oliver doubted he would be doing any real work. And Theo’s math skills certainly weren’t advanced enough to do accounting, if the chalk scribbles he’d seen on the forgotten slate were to be trusted. If Katerin agreed, perhaps they could work out something with the boy’s tutor. A copper per extra completed assignment, put into a jar of savings for the wand, might give the boy a little more incentive to focus on his studies.
Katerin opened the door to her office just as they arrived in front of it. “So that’s where you ran off to,” she said, reaching out and smoothing the boy’s copper hair.
Theo ducked away from her hand. “Me and Mr. Oliver were talking about how good an idea it is for me to get a utility wand! He thinks so, too!”
She scowled. “Have you been bothering Mr. Oliver about that? Didn’t I tell you to finish your homework and then report back to me? Your tutor told me you haven’t fully completed the last three assignments he gave you, and you’ve been distracted during lessons…”
“I’m almost finished!” Theo hurried to assure her, his hands held up placatingly. “I was just accompanying Mr. Oliver so he wouldn’t be lonely! I’m going back now.” The boy turned and scurried off down the hall before Katerin could respond, picking up his chalk and slate and escaping.
Katerin shook her head ruefully, waving Oliver into her office.
He told her his idea for incentivizing Theo.
She pressed her red-painted lips together and sighed. “I suppose it might work. I swear, if it’s not about magic or adventure, that boy isn’t interested.”
Oliver smiled. “Children his age are all like that. You can’t tell me you actually appreciated the value of your studies when you were his age.”
“I suppose that’s true. It took real hardship for me to understand. I wouldn’t wish that for him. It’s not like I’m overflowing with money, but I could afford a few copper a day if it would change his attitude toward learning.” She crossed her arms and nodded. “I’ll talk to his tutor about this idea. The room for your meeting is already prepared. Your contacts haven’t arrived yet. I sent Harper to escort them from the docks. We should have a half hour yet.”
“Good. I wanted to get here early, and it’s a good thing I did. There was a bit of an incident on the way up, but I’ve sent Gerard out with an emergency response team to deal with it.” He explained the circumstances and the deal he’d made with the kidnapped girl’s father.
Katerin wrote out two copies of the agreement on a parchment with the blood print vow spell array already painted on it. “I’ll have him sign when they return. If he can’t afford payments, I’ll give him a couple of hours on one of our street cleaner shifts,” she muttered, looking tired.
Oliver took a seat in front of her desk, noting the piles of paper covering its surface and the way the paleness of her skin let the shadows under her eyes stand out even more. “It’s late. You shouldn’t still be working.”
“You work even longer hours.”
“I don’t also have a child to take care of.”
She waved his words away, then reached for a folder and flipped briefly through its contents. “I need more funds for the sanitation facility. One of the biological waste processors broke down, and we need to bring in a Master artificer to fix it. Ideally, we would expand the facility to handle greater capacity, so this doesn’t happen again. Especially if we plan to expand Stag territory further. The human waste within our area already exceeds the recommended amounts for the sanitation facility’s current setup.”
Oliver nodded. “Alright. Are any of the other Stag interests bringing in enough income to cover it, or should I make another monetary infusion?”
“The short answer is: No.” She picked up another folder. “The Verdant Stag itself is profitable. The rented rooms, the bar, and the kitchen are in the black, considering the cost of the building and its repairs amortized over a fifteen-year period. The gambling is bringing in a modest profit, enough to cover the salary of the basic staff as well as myself, while still paying off the magical renovations you requested.”
“Good. At least the foundation is steady. And the rest?”
“Word about the miniature alchemy shop is spreading. Profits per item are low, as you requested, but with the increased volume, it is also in the black. Alice’s wages are well covered, and there are enough extra funds to consider expanding the inventory further. Siobhan’s contributions have been well-received, especially those potions of moonlight sizzle. Her work doesn’t have the quality of alchemy done by someone who’s made a career out of it; it’s obvious she hasn’t had hundreds of hours of practice with any of those potions, but it’s good enough to sell, and most people within Stag territory won’t be able to tell the difference. I thought it was just your bleeding heart making questionable decisions again when you brought her in, but it seems she might actually be a good investment.”
“I have an eye for people,” Oliver said, smiling. “Though I will admit, a sense of responsibility did play a role in my decision.”
“Well, in a couple of years, perhaps she will be able to take over some of the more difficult magical projects. Bringing those in-house would save us a significant amount of gold. I had to spend eighty gold last week just on the liquid stone potions for the enforcers.”
She took a deep breath. “On that topic, the protection and emergency response project is still hemorrhaging money. Extracting promises of payment from individuals who’ve been aided is stemming some of the flow, but without extorting general protection money from those who live and do business in the area, it’s simply not enough.”
Oliver rubbed a finger over the edge of his mask, then took it off, the magic releasing his skin with an inaudible pop of suction. “I don’t want to charge general protection fees. That’s extortion. The people already pay taxes.”
“Taxes that are supposed to fund the coppers. Coppers who can’t be bothered to do their job, and who we are replacing with our own system, without being compensated. Have you considered that some people might be reluctant to ask for help when they know they’ll be put into debt for it? If there was a standard, low fee for all citizens within our territory, those who needed to use our services could feel unburdened doing so.”
“We’re building a network. It’s not just about the money. We want the debt, the favors, people looking to help us because they are singled out when we give aid, rather than it being a general public service. The loans we’re giving to cover our services aren’t debilitating. We allow long-term repayment plans so the payments are low, and we give them jobs to do if they don’t have the gold. It shouldn’t be that much of a burden.”
“That’s part of the problem. For instance, the man you just told me about. He has a debt of fifty gold. Perhaps, with interest, he ends up paying us six silver a month for the next ten years, and we get seventy gold out of it. But our response team may cost the Stag sixty to seventy gold for this operation, especially if they need to use magic or any of them get injured. We spend the money now, and perhaps make it back over the long term. And that’s not taking into account the things we’ve been handling where there’s no one to call in a debt, which means we eat the expense. This project is losing money, and it’s getting worse.
“The sanitation project already has no hope of being profitable. The micro-farming warehouse is going to take some time yet before it starts bringing in money, and with the other properties you want to buy, the bribes for the coppers, and the surveys you’re paying for…” She shook her head helplessly. “You know as well as I do that altruism has to be met with realism, Oliver. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
Oliver rubbed his forehead. “I’m prepared to lose money on some necessary things for the time being. I cannot have my people afraid to walk the streets. The Stags must become a symbol of trust and good governance. The more people contrast us against the other gangs and the Crowns, the better. However, perhaps there is some middle ground. It’s not the sole project I want to implement, after all, and everything costs money.”
“Well, I will say that I was skeptical about the surveys, but I’m beginning to see why you wanted them. Since we implemented the sanitation project, illness in our territory has decreased by approximately fifteen percent.”
Oliver allowed himself a genuine smile. “That’s wonderful. If we could get some basic sanitation artifacts into every home, we could probably get it down even further. I’ve been lobbying for the tax on soap to be abolished, but…” He didn’t bother finishing the familiar complaint. The Crowns weren’t interested in anything he had to say, not if it had a chance to lower their income or increase the power of the commoners. “As for the warehouse, perhaps my meeting today will bear fruit.”
Katerin brightened. “If you will, ask them if they have access to any battle artifacts. I’ve been stocking up as they become available here, but I’ve found no reliable source within the city.”
A few minutes before his new smuggling contacts were scheduled to arrive, Oliver and three of his enforcers went to the room Katerin had set up for the meeting. After speaking to the information broker, he’d received contact information for an intermediary, who’d passed along his request to speak to the person really in charge of the operation, the captain of a small fleet who smuggled magical items into the city, hidden among legitimate imports. The captain’s ships had just docked a couple of days before, and only now could Oliver finally meet him.
Oliver looked around the room approvingly, motioning for two of the enforcers to stand against the back wall unobtrusively, while the third stood outside the door.
The room had been immaculately cleaned, the windows and floorboards polished, subtle wealth and power in every detail. A large, thronelike chair sat behind an imposing desk that looked like it might have been carved whole from a single giant tree. In front of the desk were a few shorter chairs, subtly forcing his guests to look up at him. The lighting was soft, the main source a light crystal that hung from the ceiling behind his desk, to better blend the shadows with the artificial darkness behind his mask.
He settled in the large chair behind the desk and took out the single folder Katerin had placed in a drawer. It was simply there for him to pretend to look over while they entered.
The captain arrived shortly afterward, and when the enforcer in front of the door knocked and announced this, Oliver said, “Send them in,” immediately. There was no point making them wait as a power play, since he’d been the one to invite them to use the Stag’s discreet, neutral meeting rooms. Oliver trusted the setting and his own charisma to make any necessary statement about wealth and power.
A sun-weathered man with the slightly wide gait of someone used to the pitch and roll of a ship’s deck introduced himself as Captain Eliezer. He was accompanied by a couple of his men, who followed slightly behind and stayed mostly silent.
Oliver welcomed them cordially.
Eliezer’s men eyed Oliver’s mask and then the enforcers at the back of the room with obvious discomfort, but neither side made any threatening overtures, and Captain Eliezer himself seemed unfazed.
After a couple minutes of small talk, during which Oliver offered them each a glass of ridiculously expensive alcohol, let them grow comfortable in the opulently plush seats, and bragged about the security wards surrounding the room, they finally got down to business.
“I’ve been told you have access to certain luxury items that can be difficult to obtain in Gilbratha. I have need of a variety of such items. Do you think you can provide?” He handed Captain Eliezer a sheet of paper with a list of magical plants he wanted seeds, shoots, or graftable clippings from, along with the various special materials that would be necessary to successfully cultivate them.
The man read carefully down the list without any change of expression, then looked back up at Oliver. “I can get most of the seeds, and maybe some of the smaller shoots or clippings, if you’re willing to pay for stasis spells so they don’t die in transit, but some of these are too large or otherwise noticeable to get through the customs inspections at the docks.”
Oliver had expected that might be the case. “If you’re still able to obtain those things, perhaps another port might be slightly more lax? I have a contact that could pick them up elsewhere.” From there, he could either figure out how to get them into the city himself, or perhaps cultivate them outside it, only bringing in the more subtle final products of those plants. There were problems with that plan, too, but anything was possible, with time, money, and a bit of cleverness.
Eliezer hesitated. “There is another issue. You are requesting the capability to produce the end products, which we otherwise provide to other interested parties within Gilbratha. If you become a supplier, this could decrease our trade volume. I’m not willing to put my long-term livelihood, and that of my crew, at risk for a single paycheck.”
Oliver dipped his head in acknowledgment, wrapping his fingers around the polished wood of his chair and leaning back. “I completely understand. I’m willing to pay a premium on those items which won’t be part of an ongoing order. However, let me reassure you, the components produced from these plants are not going to be sold on the open market. They’ll be used for various things in-house, and shouldn’t affect your trade with any other interested parties, within or outside of Gilbratha.”
Eliezer didn’t seem particularly reassured by that.
“This isn’t all that I need. I’m hoping to establish an ongoing relationship with you in other areas as well. Particularly, I need battle artifacts and a variety of alchemical concoctions. For the artifacts, it matters not if their spells are charged, though the price I will pay would adjust accordingly.”
Eliezer nodded slowly.
“For the potions and philtres, I’m interested in some more magically intensive varieties, useful for both offense and defense. I would require they be fresh and brewed at standard efficacy, if not greater. I would expect you to test them upon receipt, as I won’t pay for any of sub-par quality.”
“We already have buyers for battle artifacts and a variety of potions,” Eliezer said leadingly.
“You cannot increase your volume?” Oliver questioned. “This would seem to be only a good thing for you. I am willing to pay a slight premium for the highest quality of your stock, and you are free to continue trading with whoever else you like. Three percent.”
Eliezer thought for a moment, then said, “What kind of volume are you looking for with the artifacts and alchemy? I have one main ship and two smaller ones, and some items are only worth the time and space in my cargo at higher volumes, or if I pick them up with another order.”
“For this first shipment, I’m willing to purchase as many as you can provide. After that, we can discuss our ongoing relationship again.”
Eliezer scanned the room again, his eyes lingering on the signs of wealth all around him. “Agreed. Seeds will be hidden within larger bags of grain. Shoots and clippings will be held in stasis within seemingly decorative containers. Kegs and bottles of alcohol will hold the alchemical items. For the battle artifacts, it can be a little more tricky depending on their size and shape. The price for whatever we use to disguise the transfer will be included in the payment.”
They took a few minutes to draw up a full list of the other items Oliver was interested in, then haggled over the price for each.
At the end, Eliezer nodded, tucking the paper into his pocket. “Alright, we will bring the things you need. It will take a few months, at this time of year. Any bribes to the dock officials or the coppers will be borne by you as well.”
Oliver shook his head, his tone firm. “No. Bribes will come out of your own pockets. After all, what incentive do you have to be frugal, otherwise? I’m already paying a premium for the plants, as well as the choicest artifacts and potions. If you cannot afford your own bribes, your business is not run as smoothly as I hoped.”
Eliezer glared at him for a moment, leathery wrinkles deepening around his squinting eyes, but finally gave a sharp nod. “Fine.”
Oliver offered them another glass of liquor before they left.
Eliezer, a little more at ease now that the negotiations were finished, accepted with a yellow-toothed smile that was duplicated by his men. “Never known a sailor to refuse a good drink,” he said.
They left soon after, refusing Oliver’s offer of an escort back to their inn, and Oliver settled back in his miniature throne, the exhilaration of success pushing away his fatigue. It might take a few months to see the effects, but this new relationship would make a difference.
Artifacts and potions for his enforcers, to protect them and make them more effective in their jobs, and plants to bring the micro-farm warehouse into quick profitability while subsidizing the ingredients for the alchemy shop. Maybe there would even be something suitable for Theo among the artifacts.
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What are your thoughts on Oliver’s plans and his methods of execution?