Month 1, Day 30, Saturday 3:30 p.m.
Through the curtained window of the discreet carriage Oliver had appropriated from Lord Morrow, which allowed him to look out but did not allow others to see in, Oliver noted an unusually large number of coppers patrolling his expanded territory. A pair of coppers had stopped a man on the side of the street and were shaking him by his elbow, drawing angry looks from all around.
“It’s ironic that we break fewer laws than the Morrows ever did, and yet the coppers find us so much more offensive,” Oliver said.
Huntley’s ever-flickering gaze remained on their surroundings. “It’s because we make it so much more obvious that the coppers aren’t doing their jobs. It will die down.”
Oliver wasn’t sure it would. The coppers were harassing Katerin and anyone else who worked for the Verdant Stag, trying to bring Lord Stag and the Raven Queen in for questioning and arrest. Oliver doubted the coppers were getting much from those they harassed, but it was still a problem.
Oliver had managed to get most of his people released, but the fines and bribes were becoming prohibitive, and the coppers weren’t showing any signs of slowing down. In a way, it was similar to what he was doing with the Morrows. They were holding his people ransom. The coppers needed to be seen doing something after the widespread fighting and collateral damage had made them seem so ineffectual, and they were getting their arrest numbers up.
Of course, not all the coppers were corrupt. Some of them actually wanted to help the community, and others were at least willing to do the right thing if it didn’t significantly inconvenience them. Many of them had started the job with high ideals, but it was hard to stay clean when so many others were crooked, and the system itself seemed to subtly encourage that.
Oliver needed to find more coppers who still held to their principles, or would at least prefer to be bribed to look the other way by an organization more like the Verdant Stag than one like the Morrows.
Perhaps more easily, he could make harassing his people unappealing. He pressed his hand over his chest, where a black leather notebook sat in the inside pocket of his jacket. Before he had found the book and its key—having meticulously rifled through Lord Morrow’s properties and belongings from top to bottom and broken all the wards and safeguards the man had put in place—Oliver’s best idea had been to hire a team of solicitors specifically to make arrests more hassle than they were worth.
Lord Morrow had kept a team specifically for that type of thing. Instead of just paying the fines and the bribes to get his people out, Oliver could set solicitors to argue every case. It would be as tedious for him as it was for the coppers, and it would drag out the whole process and probably cost him even more, but it would make his people seem like a less appealing target.
He would still do that, but the notebook offered another type of solution. With one to two pages for every entry—some entries with only a few lines and others packed with neat, tiny writing—the book was filled with blackmail material. Blackmail on anyone remotely important, some who the Morrows had worked with, and some who Lord Morrow simply wanted to be prepared for in case of need.
There was even a page for Lord Stag, though there was nothing truly incriminating listed, just tidbits of knowledge about illegal activities he’d been involved with, as well as speculation and notes about failed attempts to find his civilian identity.
But there was plenty of information on local law enforcement, covering people who worked on every level, in all the different departments. When Oliver had realized what it contained, he’d been grateful for the featureless mask of Lord Stag, because the wild grin splitting his face from side to side was probably disturbing.
He’d gained more than just the little black notebook, though. The Morrows had been profitable. Very much so. And a large portion of their resources and businesses were now in Oliver’s hands, ready for him to do with what he would. Attached to all that came the contracts, employees, and supply chains that kept all of it running, which was as much a blessing as it was a curse.
Lord Morrow had several properties filled with everything from overpriced furniture embroidered with actual gold thread, to a library of books he’d probably never read and only displayed for the aesthetic, to an old, abandoned printing press down in the basement surrounded by other knickknacks, non-working artifacts, and even some actual junk. The man may have been a hoarder. And it was all Oliver’s.
Lord Morrow’s widow had signed over almost everything she had legal control over, except for some properties 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 to get her to talk. Then he had forced her, like her children and all the other captured Morrows who 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 problematic than simply trying to steal the assets once owned by the various Morrows. Forcing people into contracts or vows under duress was illegal, and they could sue to regain what had been unlawfully taken from them, but the vows they had made 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 were, of course, denied release. Those who might change their minds once they were free, despite the vow’s minor compulsion, would 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 “his” coppers.
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 aid from the few Morrows who avoided capture, they would be a drain on enemy resources instead of making themselves martyrs.
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, so this was the best solution he could come up with.
Oliver had only taken a moderate fine from those who hadn’t committed any particularly serious crimes, while hiring the best—and least offensive—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, tightening his grip. He had dozens of good places to put the new resources to work, such as an alchemical workshop that had been creating addictive substances for the Morrows. Under Oliver, it was going to be turned toward a new—legal—enterprise 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, a change that would require ponderous enforcement, Oliver suspected that rehabilitation would prove a more successful—and cost effective—method of solving the epidemic. And if nothing else, it would make him look good.
Oliver watched as another pair of coppers swaggered out of the doorway of a shop that bore the bright green antlers of the Verdant Stag above their doorframe, the younger of the two smirking as he dropped a handful of coins into his pocket. Too much coin to be change for a purchase. They’d just extorted the shop owner.
They were losing all sense of moderation. They thought he was an easy victim.
“Stop the carriage,” Oliver ordered, rapping on the roof to alert the driver, because the man wouldn’t be able to hear him past the carriage’s privacy wards, and he didn’t want to lower them with a pair of coppers right there. The carriage was spelled to be both unremarkable and difficult to track, but all the wards were on the same system.
Huntley’s gaze flicked around, through the windows in both doors, then searched Oliver for signs of illness or injury. “You’re scheduled to go straight from the alchemy workshop to the Verdant Stag. What’s wrong?”
“The coppers are harassing a shop owner under our protection.” Oliver’s instinct was to do something about it personally, but that would have been the worst possible decision, giving them exactly what they really wanted on a silver platter. “You should get out and dissuade them.”
“Absolutely not,” Huntley replied.
Oliver scowled at him. “It shouldn’t be that difficult. It is our job to provide some measure of security for the people in our territory, Huntley. Otherwise they will lose faith in us, and that leads to attempted coups.”
Huntley crossed his arms over his chest. “No. My job is to keep you safe. Worst case scenario, I go out there and end up getting arrested, and then something happens to you.”
“I’m not completely helpless without you, you know. I’ve handled myself against worse threats, and I’ll stay hidden in the carriage the whole time.”
Outside, the coppers had stopped beside a stall selling thin bowls of steaming soup run by a scowling middle-aged woman. The one who’d pocketed the coin swaggered up, saying something to the woman. Perhaps a threat, or perhaps just a request for a bowl of soup.
She sneered, crossing her arms over her chest as she retorted.
Oliver noted the subtle antlers painted clumsily on the corner of the wooden sign that hung from the stall.
The crowd outside grew thicker as people stopped to watch the commotion, scowling and muttering.
The older copper said something to his younger partner, gesturing for them to leave, but the young man ignored him, stepping around the stall to drag the woman out into the street by her arm.
“Just go out and act vaguely threatening, Huntley. They’re going after a woman now. I’m worried things could go poorly.” More passersby were now stopping to glare at the coppers, and the muttering was growing louder.
A thickly muscled man in a leather apron yelled out an angry remark that Oliver couldn’t make out, but which roiled the crowd and drew hostile looks from both coppers. People were beginning to mill around the carriage, blocking the horses, so they couldn’t leave anyway.
Huntley settled back, crossing his arms. “This isn’t a negotiation. Even if I was inclined to abandon my duties, which I’m not, Katerin would kill me. The proprietress will be fine. At most, the coppers will mess the stall up a little and make her come in for questioning. That’s half a day’s earnings gone. If I go out there, all it gives us is a minor show of force against two beat coppers who don’t much matter. Either I threaten them and they come back more angry, with a legitimate reason to arrest me, or I bribe them to go away and we still look weak.”
“I think it could be worse for her—”
The woman spat in the copper’s face.
Oliver’s heart sank.
White-faced, the man shoved her to the ground, his hand going for the battle wand at his waist.
Oliver lunged for the door handle, but Huntley blocked him. “He’ll kill her!” Oliver snapped.
Huntley hesitated, following Oliver’s gaze out of the window.
While Huntley was distracted, Oliver slipped on his Lord Stag mask, letting its suction settle onto the skin of his face, and opened the carriage door. The angry clamor from the crowd flowed over him. He paused, because the copper hadn’t used the battle wand to shoot a spell but had instead cracked the woman across the cheekbone with it.
The man raised his hand to repeat the action just as a skinny, dark-skinned young man stumbled his way out of the surrounding crowd, tripped, and went sprawling onto the cobblestones.
He was carrying a bulky device in both hands, which fell across a box of soup ingredients set next to the stall, and the sharp flash of blinding-white light from it was evidence enough of what had happened, even with the sound of the camera obscura’s shutter being drowned out by the screams.
The copper stopped his second swing mid-way, turning toward the fallen young man with an expression of stunned alarm that quickly morphed into rage.
His older partner was obviously uneasy, and he stepped forward to put a restraining hand on the younger copper’s arm.
Many of the crowd probably didn’t know exactly what the artifact was, but they knew magic when they saw it, and the response of the coppers was enough to spread a hush through them.
Oliver heard it clearly when the young copper asked, “Did you just take a photograph of me?”
The dark-skinned young man scrambled clumsily upright, almost tripping over his own feet again as he did so, fumbling to get his wire-rimmed glasses to sit straight on his face. “No—I—it was an accident. I just need—” He cut off with a twisted, horrified expression.
A shockingly loud, stuttering grumble of flatulence tore through the crowd. The young man jerked, his hands twitching toward his backside as if he could hold the sound in—to no avail, as it ripped through him, the occasional squeak interrupting the rumble until it finally died out with a reluctant wheeze.
The silence in its absence was deafening. The boy’s face was noticeably pale despite the dark tint of his skin, giving him a greenish pallor. “I’m sorry, that was an accident. I ate something bad, and I thought I was going to—at least it was only gas. Better out than in, my dad always says!” he added with a high-pitched, anxious laugh, his eyes darting around as if searching for an escape route.
The coppers were not amused.
“That’s right, you tell ‘em!” someone in the back of the crowd called, vibrating their tongue and lips together to create an exaggerated farting noise of their own. Someone else soon repeated the sound.
The boy paled even further, shaking his head desperately as the young copper stepped forward, swinging the baton once more, this time aimed at the young man.
The boy lifted a forearm to block the blow, and the copper punched him with his other hand, sending his glasses flying.
The boy cringed away, falling to his knees as he felt about frantically for the glasses.
The copper lunged forward as if to kick him in the side, but before he could do so, someone in the crowd threw a small stone, hitting the man in the back of the head.
The older partner spun around, lifting his wand and throwing up a shield spell. That only set off the crowd, and soon more projectiles were flying. Mud, stones, and even chunks of trash and old food.
“Don’t you dare shoot at the crowd!” the older copper screamed over his shoulder at his young, foolish partner who had gotten them into this precarious situation.
Oliver’s carriage driver had apparently had enough, and he tried to get them away, but the crowd was blocking the road and the horses quickly grew spooked. Oliver was worried that they might panic and trample someone.
When an angry citizen tipped a whole barrel full of coal out of the wagon a few meters in front of them, blocking the way with too little room for them to maneuver, even Huntley knew there would be no easy escape.
Both coppers were shielding now, standing back-to-back and preparing to try to ram their way through a thin section of the crowd before things escalated further. The older copper tossed out a couple of philtres of stench, the nausea-inducing clouds sending people coughing and retching to the ground.
Both the stall owner and the young artifact-toting boy had scrambled away in the confusion.
“Well, I suppose you’ve gotten your wish,” Huntley said bitingly. “We have to get out and retreat on foot. We are not wading into the fray, sir. Keep your hood up and follow me.” Without waiting for a response, he jumped down to the ground, his wand out with its own protective barrier springing from the tip. The man winced at that small exertion, lifting one hand to his side. The broken ribs and punctured lung he’d gotten in the fight against the Morrows were still healing.
Huntley yelled for their driver to take care of the horses, to cut them free from the carriage if necessary.
Oliver kept a firm grasp on his own wand, his cloak obscuring his mask as they wove through and among the crowd. Oliver was less worried about someone seeing Lord Stag out and about than recognizing Oliver Dryden and making an unfortunate connection. Perhaps one day he would be able to go around his territory as “Mr. Oliver” again, but at the moment the situation was too fraught, tensions too high.
Oliver and Huntley weren’t the only ones escaping the fray, and other than a few jostles against elbows and shoulders, they managed without incident. As they turned the corner a block away, with Huntley angled to shield Oliver’s back and side, someone coming around in the other direction slammed directly into Oliver with an audible “oof!”
The artifact-toting boy from earlier bounced off Oliver, so focused on protecting his camera obscura that he fell onto his bottom hard enough to force out a whimper of pain. He pushed up his glasses, one shattered lens obscuring a swelling black eye. He blinked up at Oliver, then immediately went wide-eyed and green with horror. Obviously, he had seen under Oliver’s hood.
Oliver sighed regretfully, rubbing at the chin of his mask where the boy’s forehead had clipped him, grateful for the unexpected protection it had afforded. His eyes narrowed as they caught on the camera obscura.
The boy stood up, scrambled backward, and bowed deeply to Oliver. “Sorry, so sorry!”
Huntley stepped forward, switching off the shield spell coming from his wand and pointing it threateningly at the boy, who looked to be a year or two younger than Siobhan.
“Oh, Myrddin’s balls!” the boy babbled. “I’m really on a roll, first the coppers and now Lord Stag.” He swallowed, smiling ingratiatingly at Oliver, his eyes flicking nervously to Huntley. “I don’t suppose you’d let me go if I promise not to mention I saw you? I don’t have any particular love for the coppers!” He pointed to his purpling eye.
Oliver shook his head slowly, and the boy quailed. “I mean you no harm,” Oliver assured him. “However, I believe we have business to discuss.” He gestured to the camera obscura. “I’m interested in purchasing that photograph you took earlier.” With the little black journal, he had blackmail in the forefront of his mind, and had realized the potential uses of such a photograph. He thought back to the moment of the flash. He believed the angle of the artifact’s lens was correct to have captured something interesting…if the photograph wasn’t too blurred.
The boy’s mouth opened and closed like a fish, and he looked down at the camera obscura, dumbfounded. “But it might not even be anything. The flash went off by accident. It probably wasn’t pointed at anything except a couple of potatoes, and even if it was, surely everything’s too blurred to make out…?”
“You will come with us,” Oliver ordered. “You can find an appropriate spot at the Verdant Stag to check the photograph. Under supervision.”
The boy shook his head. “That won’t work. I can’t just expose the photo negative to light to check it without first developing and ‘fixing’ the disk. It would ruin the captured image. And I don’t have that processing artifact on me.”
“Where is it?”
“Well, it’s at home…”
Huntley nodded to Oliver. “I’ll have someone escort him to fetch it.”
After a painful moment where the boy looked constipated with the desire to argue, but didn’t seem to know how to do so, he acquiesced, deflating.
They made their way through the city on foot for a few blocks, Huntley’s eyes on a constant paranoid search for danger, though he put away his wand after a while so as not to draw extra attention to them.
The boy chattered nervously as they walked. “It’s not a photograph inside, you know. This model has a magic crystal disk that captures a reverse image. It can capture three whole images before I need to replace the cartridge! Though it’s not really a reverse image, it’s just got the bright parts dark and the dark parts light. They call it a ‘negative,’ and it means that I can make as many photographs from the original disk as I want…”
Oliver tuned him out as they walked, vulnerable, toward the Verdant Stag. He knew this situation would never have happened if he were riding Elmira instead of inside a supposedly much safer carriage. An Erythrean wouldn’t have been so spooked by the crowd or commotion, and she was sure-footed enough to have maneuvered through, over, or around almost any kind of blockage in her way. Of course, he’d also been ambushed before while riding her, since a man riding a horse—even a completely common-looking one like her—stood out in some of the poorer parts of town.
Oliver mused about getting her a saddle with the same kind of wards the carriage had. Huntley might not agree to let him ride her even then, however, since it was a lot harder to protect a man riding a horse than one inside the shielding walls of a carriage.
A few blocks away from the incident, Huntley flagged down a hackney with the Verdant Stag antlers painted discreetly on its side. The man took a bright green badge from an inside pocket and flashed it at the driver, who gave a deep bow of the head and motioned for them to hop on.
Oliver looked on in surprise. Katerin had been using the Stag funds to kit out the enforcers in more ways than just their equipment, it seemed.
The young man, sitting squeezed between Oliver and Huntley, hugged his camera obscura to his chest.
“What is your name?” Oliver said, breaking the tense silence.
“Percival Irving. Well met, Lord—um—Mr.…” He threw an awkward glance toward the driver, who was studiously not paying them any attention.
Oliver’s wry smile was hidden under his mask, but he nodded graciously. “Well met.”
As the carriage passed by the Verdant Stag, he saw Siobhan. She stood out from the crowd. Although she was wearing a cloak with a hood that disguised most of her physical features, she carried herself with the regality of a queen. Yes, he was sure it was her.
Oliver hummed to himself, feeling ambiguous as he watched her enter the inn-cum-entertainment hall. He had grown closer to her than he planned. He was one to take on “projects,” obviously, and though he’d hoped she would grow to be truly useful—which had happened even sooner than he could have guessed, though not in the way he expected—he hadn’t thought it would be more than that. Yet, now he was worried for her, pleased to see her, and disappointed that he couldn’t stop the carriage on the street and call for her to jump in so that they could talk.
The driver took them around to the Verdant Stag’s back yard where there was a locked entrance with a route to the upper floor where Oliver kept his office.
Huntley gave the man, who was sensible enough a driver to not even peek under Oliver’s hood as he got out of the carriage, a large tip, then took Percival off to the enforcer office.
While Oliver waited for someone to escort the boy back home and return, he called Siobhan up to visit him, and they had a pleasant chat that erased most of the tension from his morning, sharing troubles and ideas for solutions. She looked haggard and a little too thin, but her company was as compelling as ever. When she left, Oliver put his mask back on regretfully.
Percival entered shortly after, holding a sealed cartridge that Oliver supposed contained the negative image.
The boy cleared his throat. “The camera obscura did actually capture a good image of that copper. Very…impactful.”
Oliver waved the boy forward. He opened the cartridge, pulling out the first disk and examining it. It contained a miniature black and white image, with the dark and light reversed, of the copper beating the woman shop owner in the street. The copper’s arm was blurred with motion, and both of their faces were clear enough, vibrant with emotion. Oliver gave a satisfied smile. “I will purchase it from you. Seven gold. If you’re interested, I can also hire you to develop an actual photograph from the negative.”
Percival’s fingers tightened around the cartridge. “Seven gold?” He swallowed. “That sounds good. Wait, no, I want at least nine gold.”
Oliver raised an amused eyebrow, though it wasn’t visible beneath the mask, “Eight gold, then. That’s my final offer.”
“And…I also have another negative I think you might want to purchase. One of the Raven Queen. It’s impactful, too.”
The next chapter will come out Thursday, 3/10, according to the slow-down announcement posted here: https://www.azaleaellis.com/pgts/new-grimoire-page-schedule-announcement/
While being able to focus more time on the writing, I’m averaging about 2.5 chapters drafted per week, and making good headway into the story. I’ve had to move some things around, add stuff, and cut other stuff. Still on track to get back to the regular weekly posting schedule in April.
I’ve also continued to put out more Illustrated Grimoire Excerpts, and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the slowdown.
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