Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 6:30 p.m.
Two bodyguards accompanied Oliver as he rode through the dark streets atop his Erythrean horse. Even though his people successfully fought off the Morrows’ blatant attack on the warehouse holding his new miniature farm, he was wary of their next move.
Oliver knew he was unlikely to be ambushed in Nightmare Pack territory, but the Morrows were known for their occasional recklessness, and it wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented for his meeting with the Nightmare Pack leader to be a trap.
If anything happened, he and his two guards could fight back, and if the situation called for it, his horse could flee like the wind. Oliver wasn’t so puffed up on his own pride that he couldn’t admit that sometimes running away was the smart decision. One could always get revenge later.
Nightmare Pack territory was in the heart of the Mires, even poorer than his own territory, especially after the Verdant Stag’s various programs to improve the quality of life for his people. Here, though, the number of non-humans was noticeable. Already, he’d seen signs of a hag, a vampire, and what was either a gremlin or a homunculus.
The gang provided three main things: a safe place for non-humans to live, less open discrimination, and a sense of community. But then, it also pressured the more powerful and useful non-humans to join the gang, supported certain kinds of crime, and made law enforcement even more reluctant to help those who needed them most.
Oliver and his bodyguards stopped at the gate in front of the Nightmare Pack headquarters, a once-proud manor with a small yard in the heart of the slums. They dismounted and handed their reins to a young man who hurriedly led the horses around to the back. If he was truly wary, Oliver would have insisted the horses stay out front, ready to go, but that would have been an insult, and an inauspicious start to the alliance he hoped to form tonight.
A man with the look of a wolf in his eyes and the shape of his jaw opened the manor’s front door and bowed, motioning for them to step inside. “Welcome, Lord Stag. The pack leader awaits you.”
The manor was old, the dark wood of the interior scuffed and scratched from many years of heavy, reckless traffic and sharp-clawed footsteps. The hallways were wide, the walls covered in lifelike paintings of nature and the hunt, and mounted with the occasional taxidermied trophy.
The man gestured silently to a set of open double doors, and Oliver stepped through alone.
The room beyond was expansive, with a burning fireplace at the far end, simple rugs and a mismatched scattering of comfortable chairs and couches filling most of the rest of the room. The windowsills spilled over with potted plants, and vines crawled up the glass. Stylistic sculptures of animals in different stages of transformation between man and beast were bolted onto stands or the walls, presumably to protect them from being accidentally knocked over and shattered.
Another man stood within, facing away from the doorway, his hands clasped behind his back. He was gazing up at a large oil painting of wolves falling upon a deer in the forest, but turned when Oliver entered.
His eyes were a light amber that seemed to shine in contrast to skin that was almost as dark as his hair, which hung in tiny braids to his shoulders. His cheekbones sat high and a thick, closely trimmed beard covered his chin. Despite the semi-casual suit vest he wore and the cultured way he held himself, the wildness behind his eyes was palpable. “Welcome, Lord Stag.”
Oliver was suddenly hit with the irony of holding that pseudonym before a man like this. The leader of the Nightmare Pack was well-known to be a lycanthrope, which was the common name for those skin-walkers who could take on and off the skin of a wolf, transforming into the animal at will. Still, even in front of a wolf, a stag was not defenseless.
Oliver bowed in return, removing his mask as he straightened. They were alone, and as the one who had requested this meeting, it would have been quite rude to keep his face concealed. “Thank you, Lord Lynwood.”
“No need for a title. I am no lord. I am the alpha, and I am not above my people. I lead them, I do not own them,” the other man said.
Oliver couldn’t tell if there was hostility in Lynwood’s tone, or if he was simply sensing the watchful vigilance of a natural predator whose magic was not just something he wielded but a part of his body. So different from Oliver. “It is a beautiful painting,” he said, diverting the topic of conversation.
Lynwood didn’t give even the barest hint of a smile, though he turned to look up at the huge piece again. “Art, in its most pure form, is a melding of the unadulterated instinct and passion of a beast and the conscious control of a man. As I studied to gain control of the canvas, I found I also gained control of myself.”
“You painted this?”
Lynwood’s lips stretched into a small, satisfied smile. “To the outside world, many know me only as a somewhat eccentric artist. You might be surprised to learn that I fund a significant portion of our operations off sales of my work. Those with too much money in their coffers love to show off their deeper sense of artistic appreciation by paying exorbitant sums for grand paintings that hold a message they fear and yet pretend to understand.” He gestured around to the other paintings and sculptures scattered about. “It is not all my own work. I encourage all those in my pack to find joy in creation as well as destruction.”
“I admire your approach,” Oliver said. “That’s why I requested to meet with you today. I want to discuss a mutual endeavor that I believe could benefit both our people.”
Lynwood turned, eyed Oliver assessingly, then motioned to a couple of chairs in front of the fire. “Please, let us sit, and you can elucidate.”
Once they were both seated, Oliver said simply, “The Morrows.”
Lynwood raised his eyebrows, a silent encouragement to continue.
“You’ve likely heard of the harassment the Verdant Stag has been facing from them. When I first opened the inn and created the Stags, the Morrows resisted, but I was determined and they backed down. Due to the small size of my operation, the lack of critical territory under my domain, and my willingness to spend extravagantly to hold the area, it would have cost them more to get rid of me than the Morrows could earn by holding the territory. Or such was my theory, anyway.”
“I remember this time,” Lynwood said, nodding.
“However, they continued to abuse the people in my territory, perhaps even more than before. In addition to their usual criminal behavior—the kidnappings for their whorehouses and fighting arena, selling the worst of their addictive alchemy products, threatening people for money and favors—they harassed anyone who wore my symbol or simply lived in the wrong place. So I created enforcers to protect my people.”
Oliver gave a humorless grin, the show of teeth meant to speak to the wolf in the other man. Lynwood wasn’t the first lycanthrope Oliver had met, and thank the stars above for that experience. “The Morrows respected my boundaries once they had no other choice, at first, but recently they’ve begun their harassment again. This time, their attacks are pointed and brutal. It’s obvious they hope to collapse my organization entirely by harrying us until we cannot keep up with the cost of the damage and those within the territory lose faith in us. They plan to then take back the entirety of what was once theirs.”
“And how is this relevant to me?”
Oliver smiled again. “The Morrows overstep their boundaries. Just as they overestimate their infallibility.”
“I know they’ve made themselves a thorn in your side, too. They take your people for their brothels, and they have a particular interest in non-humans for their underground pit fights. I would assume they also feed addictive substances into your territory. They don’t do all this overtly, perhaps. They don’t want to drive you to retaliate in force. But they don’t respect your authority, and they are harming your people.”
Lynwood steepled his fingers together in his lap. “It’s natural that we bicker and snap at each other. If one organization falls, another will rise to take its place, and who is to say the new order will be better than the old? Balance is important. Or, at least, the right kind of instability.” Was Lynwood hinting that if the Nightmare Pack helped the Stags take out the Morrows, his gang might not actually benefit in the end? Perhaps there was some fear that the Stags would grow greedy and turn on them next, Oliver mused.
“That’s where you’re wrong. Balance is important, I agree, but instability is only preferable if you believe that order would not bring prosperity to you and yours. By all accounts, you are a reasonable man, Lynwood. I’m a reasonable man too, when not pushed to extremes. War is costly. I wouldn’t choose it if I had other, more practical, options.”
Oliver was telling the truth. The Morrows had attacked him and killed two of his people. It wasn’t possible to back down now. They would crush him if he showed weakness. Even if by some miracle, they decided to stop harassing his people and let him keep operating, the Verdant Stag operation as a whole would still not be sustainable.
He was slowly being bled dry, and needed to increase the size and profitability of his operations to change the tide. If he could take out the Morrows and obtain even half their territory and operations—along with the more palatable streams of income—almost all of his problems would be solved in one fell swoop.
Oliver added, “In the interest of allowing as little instability as possible, I would suggest our two organizations agree to a nonaggression treaty, to be renegotiated in five years’ time.” This would give both of them time to consolidate their hold on what they gained from defeating their common enemy, without worry that either side would grow greedy and attempt to take more than their fair share.
“You are suggesting that we would benefit from allying with you against the Morrows?”
“Yes. In addition to stopping their current persecution of your people, I have no doubt some of their operations would be better managed in your hands. The fighting arena, for example. I’m sure you could provide voluntary participants, and I hear the income from the betting is quite high. They have control of Avery Park, which would seem a welcome addition to your territory. Perhaps a portion of their shops in the Night Market could do with a different owner?”
Lynwood stared at the fire for a long moment, but when he turned back to Oliver, his expression was still firmly unimpressed. “Be that as it may, it would require this operation to be successful. We might be larger than the Morrows if you count only the size of our territory and the number of people it contains, but we do not share their monetary resources. I am loath to conscript my people to fight and throw away their lives for an ally that cannot even manage to protect themselves without our help.”
“You’d be mistaken to think the Verdant Stag cannot protect itself. Surely you’ve heard of the consequences of the Morrows’ last attack on us?”
Lynwood nodded, the intensity of his amber-eyed gaze revealing an increased interest in this particular topic. “Indeed.”
“The Stags are merely more interested in supporting our own people and growing our interests than focusing unnecessary resources toward an extended skirmish. Additionally, even were we to take down the Morrows, we are still too small to hold the entire Morrow territory securely. It would be an invitation to others to try and take a piece of it, and the situation would spiral into endless conflict. That’s useless to us. I hope instead that we could both benefit from the destruction of the Morrows.”
Oliver paused, weighing his words. “Of course, our other option would be to take over only a portion of the Morrows’ operation and leave the rest open to the power struggles of the other gangs, which would only serve to destabilize and inconvenience the rest of the city.” The Nightmare Pack especially, since their territory was adjacent to the Morrows’, but Oliver left that part unsaid, sure that Lynwood knew what he meant.
“I have my doubts that the Verdant Stag could take out the Morrows as easily as you insinuate, at least without outside help. If not us, then perhaps the one who came to your aid recently. I hear she is called the Raven Queen. If we were to agree to this alliance, would she be included in this nonaggression treaty?” Lynwood was obviously fishing, hoping to learn Oliver’s connection to the mysterious rogue sorcerer.
“I do not control her, but we are acquainted, and she allows me some minor influence over her actions. The rumors about her are somewhat exaggerated. She is actually rather restrained, when not being harassed. She wouldn’t attack the Nightmare Pack without reason, and doubly so if I asked her politely not to.”
“The rumors may be exaggerated, but it is clear she is both bold and powerful,” Lynwood said, seeming more interested in the Raven Queen than he had been throughout the entire previous conversation. “Would she be adding her efforts to our own against the Morrows?”
“Perhaps, though I doubt she would take a front-line position. Her support against the warehouse attack was impromptu. She is quite busy and doesn’t take requests unless she finds them sufficiently valuable or…interesting.” He was playing into Siobhan’s reputation a bit, knowing that the less he said clearly, the more Lynwood would speculate, with his conclusions undoubtedly being more outlandish than the truth.
Oliver considered that Siobhan, a poor, self-educated young girl, was disguised as a young man with a completely different appearance and background, and secretly attending the University. He had to amend his previous thought. The truth was quite outlandish indeed. It was simply outlandish in a completely different direction than Lynwood would assume.
“How did you come to be associated with her?”
“A series of coincidences,” Oliver said.
Lynwood eyed him with some dissatisfaction. “Would it be possible for me to meet her?” he asked finally.
Oliver suppressed his expression of surprise, though a man such as Lynwood might be able to glean it from the responses he couldn’t control, like the change in his heartbeat or scent. “I could pass along your request, but I can make no guarantees.”
She would want to be paid, no doubt, and they would have to ensure that meeting in person didn’t disillusion Lynwood and endanger their alliance. All the rumors about her prowess were fabrications blown magnitudes out of proportion to reality, after all. It might be best to pretend to pass along the request and return with a denial. Or at least ensure the alliance was secure and the joint attack on the Morrows settled first, with the reward for meeting enough to make the risk worth it.
Oliver spoke before he had time to fully think through the idea, because he didn’t want his hesitation to be too obvious. “She enjoys tributes. She might be more likely to give an audience to someone who…gently incentivizes her.” He raised his eyebrows pointedly.
Lynwood pressed his fingertips together, settling back in satisfaction. “I understand.” His eyes gleamed with even more interest. “I agree to your proposal, Lord Stag, pending the appropriate particulars.”
“Wonderful.” Oliver reached into his pocket and brought out a rolled-up map of the city. “Let us work out the generalities, at least. Details can be solidified over time.” He laid the map over a short table. The area of their respective territories was painted with a translucent ink, with the parts of the city currently belonging to the Morrows divided between them.
Lynwood peered at it with interest, then pointed. “We’ll want a bit more of this area, all the way out to the canal.”
Oliver frowned. “That could be acceptable, if you’re willing to give up a little more of this residential district.”
They haggled over territory, and then went on to decide on the allocation of their respective combat forces, joint efforts to keep conflicts suppressed in the short term, and what businesses and enterprises each of them would swallow.
When they were both moderately satisfied, feeling that they hadn’t gotten a very good deal but not an exceedingly bad one either—which probably meant it was quite fair to both parties—Lynwood asked, “So, I assume you have planned further than dividing up the territory. How exactly do you propose we bring about the Morrows’ downfall?”
The edges of Oliver’s mouth curled up a little too far in a way he knew made him look vulpine, but Lynwood didn’t seem disturbed, his own lips pulling back to reveal sharp-edged teeth.
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