After the stunt I pulled threatening to kill him in the heart of his own base, Boss Steffron must’ve admired the audacity, because he agreed to my request for a spy. I wouldn’t say she was the one I wanted, considering he gave me Nyssa—the same raven who had tried to kill me on his own orders, but you know what they say about beggars and choosers.
And to make things even better, Boss Steffron agreed to make his gang a vassal to the Murder of Crows—meaning Boss Ivan would supply the Gathering of Ravens with arms and supplies needed to conduct business in the Giant’s Quarter so long as the revenue they shared with Ivan remained in surplus.
“I can hardly deny my dear friend Boss Ivan in his time of need,” Steffron had said, as he and I slipped along the length of downed, gigantic statues. We wandered the Giant’s Quarter, just walking and talking together. We felt our way along their perimeter, mapping the way we had come. It was something of a labyrinthine walk we went on, and I half expected another display of treachery from him.
Paranoia, all of it. The man is too desperate to attach himself to Ivan.
He continued, “I have heard of the great tragedy in your Boss’s district. To hear it told, the monster-gang—the Fangs, that is—they stormed his border-bases. I’ve heard talk of his border projects for years. Who’d have thought it would all be undone by monsters wanting nothing more than to wreck his cutting-edge steel and destroy his blueprints for the first new mechs since the Old World died?”
“Monsters are known for their lies,” I waved the notion aside. “It’s all exaggerations and rumors from creatures who wish nothing more than undue credit for a blow to one of the greatest criminal empires in the city.”
That, of course, was my job.
Regardless of how little I wanted it.
Who could’ve guessed that abandoning your post to track monsters back to their hideout full of bigger, badder monsters could land you in trouble? There was no way I could’ve known that was coming! But Ivan just wouldn’t let the matter go.
I was close to unearthing their base at the time, too. So, so close. If they hadn’t caught me first, this wouldn’t even be a problem. But they had caught me. And the affront of Ivan’s border-bases that I had helped to helm was an insult even the monsters couldn’t stomach—to have the Murder of Crows watching them, building newer, better weapons that could sally out to meet them. It was arrogance. It was only a matter of time before it boiled over. My capture was the only thing that spared me from their massacre when they trashed the bases.
My incompetence saved me.
“Rumors,” Steffron said, bringing me out of my own head, “Of course.” He scuffed a rock with his boot as we ducked underneath the arch of a grasping stone finger. My hand whispered the length of its fingernail as I skirted around it. “Whatever meager resources I control are now Boss Ivan’s to use as he needs them. Regardless of whatever people might gossip about him in hushed voices.”
“And as long as you keep your revenue total in surplus of the cost of the supplies he will send you, then you will receive his continued support,” I explained. “One tiny little problem I’d like to mention—do not be late with payments. Even one day late and the Murder may withdraw its support. Just business, you understand.”
I took about three steps before I noticed I didn’t hear him crunching through the gravel after me. I turned in the direction of his sweaty scent. “Is there a problem?”
He sighed, and picked up the pace again. “How did you fall in with the Murder of Crows, Silas Cord?”
“I knew the right people, I suppose,” I told him. If we’re telling the truth, I suppose I knew the wrong people, and as positively exhilarating as my business with Boss Steffron had been, I wasn’t exactly prepared to tell the man my life story. I kept it to, “Circumstances aligned, I stumbled on the right information in my time in the Butcher’s Corner of the city—” I told the right people the wrong information. Got the right nobody’s killed. Got noticed. “It was an accident really.” Like playing with fire and burning down an orphanage full of serial killers. It’s difficult to know how to feel about that. Life is complicated that way.
“I trust Nyssa will be suited to your purposes?” Steffron said by way of query.
“About that,” I told him as we circled back around the way we had come. “I’ll need some sort of collateral. To ensure her silence. You understand, yes?”
“Just business,” he reassured me with a too-hard slap to my back that sent me stumbling forward. I could feel a handprint on the back of my cloak. “I understand. You strike me as a gambling man, Silas. Did you not say so earlier?”
“Why don’t we roll the dice?”
“I need assurance the dice are there before I roll them, Steffron. That aside, even if they are, I must ensure I’m not gambling with loaded dice.”
Steffron hrmed and hawed for a moment, and then decided, “Nyssa has a husband and child—”
“No,” I cut him off. “I don’t involve family.”
“You’re hardly in a position to argue, Silas. You may have them as a hostage if you so prefer—”
“I do not!” I said, a little too enthusiastically. “I do not prefer! Never ask me that again, please.” I don’t doubt I sounded far too manic for his tastes. Which is to say: I sounded manic. He made a few halfhearted excuses before I waved the matter aside. “I’ll tell you what,” I told him, “To ensure your cooperation, the Murder will allow you…let’s say two weeks, yes? Two weeks to gather your resources, draw up writs and contracts, and at that time you will receive the documents, sign them, and send Nyssa back to deliver them to men. Henceforth you will begin your vassalage to the Murder of Crows.”
“And what of the support and protection the Murder has promised? I could go to your Boss with this information. He would reward me greatly.”
I drew my blade three inches from its sheath. “You won’t,” I told him. “Because then I’d have nothing left to lose. You think a man like me doesn’t prepare for that? We all have our plans and counterplans. If you wish to win the game, think before you move your pieces.”
“As good advice as any,” he said, cloak breathing against his shoulders as he shrugged. “Will you require and escort back to Muninn Point?”
“No,” I told him. “Just bring me my two-wheeler. I know the way back.”
“I can fill up your tank before you go, if you like.” I heard his lips slither back across his gums. A wide, toothy grin. “A compassionate gesture. Between two friends.”
Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron