Back in his room at the inn, Bissette leaned against the table. He did not offer Hector a place to sit. Not that it mattered. This wasn’t one of his aunt Regina’s tea parties.
Hector studied the other hunter and made a deliberately indecisive gesture. “Yes … You said that he could bring you profit.”
“So you have plans of selling your catch?”
The other hunter laughed, a short barking and mirthless sound. “Yes. Otherwise I would have killed it on sight, wouldn’t I? You may have heard that my group was disbanded. I don’t have any affiliations anymore.”
Hector nodded. Yes, he had. The Dijon group had never been as organised and established as the Frankfurt organisation. They had not the same kind of funding or internal structure, and a few years ago, there was a dispute over finances and authority between the hunters and the church. It eventually caused the group to disband. Hector could not recall the details of the issue, and he was glad that he had never had to deal with something like that.
“I can get by on my own, but like any man I could use the extra money. You can’t just waltz in and steal the credit and the payment for my catch.”
Hector crossed his arms over his chest. Who did the man think he was dealing with? Yes, he was very eager to take the prisoner off Bissette’s hands, but it was preposterous to think that he would steal anything. He ignored the small voice in the back of his head that asked him what he was planning to do if Bissette completely refused to cooperate. “I don’t care about credit or money. I am here to bring your catch to safety because my organisation has the means needed to conduct the proper research. You probably find it as important as I do that a werewolf as unique as this one does not end up in the wrong hands. If,” he added, “you are telling the truth about how special it is.”
“And what hands would those be?” Bissette’s eyes became two narrow slits. “Of course I am telling you the truth. Do you think I would lie to your face? My group may not exist anymore, but that does not mean I don’t value my good reputation.”
Hector bent his head in mock-defeat. And smiled. Oh yes, he knew this was not an ordinary werewolf. He had expected that it would take a lot more to convince him, but what happened in the basement was enough. “Hands who would put it on exhibition or torture it. Someone who would not take this opportunity to look into better medicine or a better understanding of werewolves. Because they don’t want to or because they don’t have the means to do it.”
Bissette’s eyes went to his bags on the floor. He was eager to get out of here. “I have to survive. This is my way of doing it. Maybe you don’t understand it with your noble name and your carefree background, Rothenberg, but that’s how life treats those of us who have to work for a living.”
Hector made himself take a deep breath and ignore that last sentence. He was not here to participate in a mudslinging contest. He was here to get his hands on that werewolf and get out of here with him. It didn’t matter what a stranger thought of him. His family name was what it was. And the family’s efforts were what they were. It was not worth an ugly argument. But the other hunter would clearly not hand over his catch without further ado. Hector did not like the implications and the consequences of the obvious choice, but it was preferable to any other option now. “Very well,” he said. “You have decided to sell it. Then sell it to me. It’s going to be less of a hassle to you than having to transport a werewolf somewhere else and search for a buyer. As for the credit, I will write you a contract with emphasis on your role in this. It will state that though you have sold the werewolf, all credit and reputation for the capture belong to you. I will gladly put my own seal as well as my organisation’s on it.”
Bissette seemed to consider it. “I would like a contract,” he said then. “People need to know who captured it. You saw it in the cell. Doesn’t look like much at the moment, but I can assure you that it was quite a handful to bring in alive. I’ll warn you right away. It’s not like a normal werewolf. It’s very agile and smart.”
Very well. But Hector had a feeling that he had nothing to fear from that wolf. At least not before full moon and there was still time before that. They could make it to Frankfurt in time if they hurried up. He had trusted werewolves in their human form before, and that had turned out well. “Thank you. And the price?”
“Do you have a suggestion? You are welcome to make a bid, but I doubt that less than 360 mark will do.”
Hector wondered if Bissette realised how badly he wanted this one. How much he needed to bring it home to Peter. And how much, he admitted to himself, he wanted to save the young man. To Bissette, the 360 must be a large sum, bu Hector would have paid a lot more. Of course, the board and his aunt would have words with him if he asked for a refund from the organisation. But hopefully the werewolf would be worth it. Hopefully it was a matter of setting the young man free, and hopefully the young man would then come with him to Frankfurt of his own volition. Hector repressed a sigh. There was too much ‘hopefully’ involved. “That sounds reasonable,” he said. “But I don’t have that much on me.”
He always brought enough money to be able to take a detour if necessary and to pay for lodgings and food. It was also necessary to have the means to pay for medical assistance and repairs of his equipment, but 360 mark was much more than he had at the moment. He retrieved the money that he did have from his bag and put most of it on the table. “I can give you 170,” he said. “As for the rest, I can give you a statement of debt. Or …” He took an ampoule from his bag as well. This kind of medicine was not cheap or easy to come by, especially if the other hunter did not have an organisation to turn to. “I can give you two of them. You never know when you may need it.”
Bissette nodded. But he did not looked convinced. Hector pulled up one of his sleeves and took off one of the bracers. The other hunter weighed it in his hand for a moment. “All right,” he finally said. “It’s a deal.”
Hector pulled out the stool and sat down at the table to write a formal contract. He took out his sealing wax and his seal. “Will this do?” he then asked and handed the contract to the other hunter.
Bissette studied it. “Yes,” he then said. “The beast is yours now. You can do what you want with it.” He was already folding up the contract to put it in a pocket.
“Goodbye, Bissette. Thank you for trading. And have a good hunt.”
“Good hunt, Rothenberg.” Pierre Bissette picked up his belongings and left the room. He certainly did not waste any time lingering here. The deal was done, and once the other hunter was gone, Hector would be the authority figure in Niedermark. He was fine with that. If the Frenchman had been right about something regarding his past, it was the fact that he had been groomed for taking charge.
“Be careful not to swallow a fly,” Stephan Holz said.
Hector had never seen him so … groomed. Well, maybe for a funeral, but not apart from that. His hair was combed back, and his boots were so shiny that they could almost be used as a mirror. Hector stood gaping at him.“Has something … happened?” he asked.
“No,” said Stephan. “But you’d better get ready too.” It was so obvious from Hector’s expression that he had no idea what was going on that he added, “Regina Rothenberg is on her way. Didn’t you know?”
If he did, Hector had forgotten. “Why?” he asked.
“To inspect us.”
Influential families often had a representative in the committee who oversaw the practical issues regarding the hunters. Since the Rothenberg family supported them financially in hunting and research, they wanted to see what their funds were used for, Stephan explained.. “I was asked to received Mrs. Rothenberg thanks to you,” Stephan explained. He didn’t sound particularly grateful.
Hector found some clean and respectable clothes and combed his hair back. Stephan looked him over, then nodded. Then they made their way to the courtyard. Hector couldn’t put his finger on what is was right away, but something was different. As he searched the place with his eyes, he realised that it was a number of small things. The staircase smelt of soap as if someone had scrubbed it recently. Outside a barrel that had been lying between the main building and the stables for around a week had been moved. It looked remarkably as if someone had removed the weed between the cobblestones. The changes were subtle, but they were there. Everything was a slightly better-looking version of reality. Just like Stephan.
The hunter tugged at his shirt. Hector shot him a glance. Was Stephan nervous? But it was just Hector’s aunt coming, and Stephan was a big, strong hunter.
A carriage with two dapple grey horses came through the gate and halted in front of them. Stephan straightened his back as if he were about to salute the guests. The driver waved at them, jumped from his seat and opened the door of the carriage, and then Regina Rothenberg emerged. She seemed out of place. The hem of her dress almost touched the ground. She was only wearing a few pieces of jewelry, but they stood out here in the middle of the courtyard. Hector was beginning to see why someone had cleaned the place up. It helped a bit.
“Hector,” said Regina Rothenberg and held out her hand to him.
Hector shook it and made a small bow. He had a feeling that they’d better be formal and polite. “Hello, aunt Regina,” he said.
“And you must be Stephan Holz.” She turned to Stephan and offered him her hand as well.
“Yes, I am. Welcome, Mrs. Rothenberg,” Stephan relied and bowed to her as well. “I have been asked to take care of you today.”
“That is kind of you,” Regina replied and smiled at him. “And my nephew is escorting us, I assume?”
“Splendid.” Regina Rothenberg put her hand on Hector’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It has been years since I was here with my late husband, so I would like to see everything.”
“My condolences,” Stephan said. “And of course. Let us begin here.” He gestured towards the entrance with the clean staircase.
Hector followed the two for the better part of an hour. His master and his aunt were talking about the financial aspects of the refurbishing of the stables, the founding of silver bullets, the number of employees in headquarters and a lot of other things that he lost track of. It was a little boring. If Hector had been in his aunt’s place, he’d much rather have asked how to cock a rifle or how many werewolves Stephan had shot in the past year.
Everyone they met bowed or curtsied to Regina Rothenberg, and when she talked to them, they called her ma’am and Mrs. Rothenberg. No one seemed to be in doubt who she was. They visited the hospital wing, and the chief physician talked to her about the development of medicine against werewolf bites. Over the last few years, the mortality rate of the treated victims had been brought considerably down, so there was hope for those who were treated within hours of the attack.
When finally they had been just about everywhere, it was almost dinnertime. Stephan seemed taken aback when Regina asked if it would b a terrible inconvenience if she dined with them. Hector had never heard him stutter like that. The whole visit, he realised, had been carefully planned out so far. Just like a hunt. Although the tour had appeared fairly relaxed and spontaneous, there had been a strategy underneath the surface, a plan that had been followed carefully. They had not seen anything unpleasant, not as much as an unscrubbed floor. Even in the hospital wing there had been no bloody sheets or anything of the sort. But dinner had not been planned.
Hector decided to give Stephan a hand. “Dinner isn’t served for another thirty minutes, is it?” he asked as innocently as he could.
Stephan stared at him. Then his expression was replaced by a grateful smile. “Yes, it certainly is, Hector. Ma’am, may I leave you in Hector’s care for a little while? I will meet you both as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Regina Rothenberg said. “I’m certain Hector can take care of me.”
Now what? Hector mentally went through the list of places he could take her while Stephan no doubt was running to the kitchen to ask the cooks to make the meal look a little better and get someone to wipe the tables in the dining hall before Mrs. Rothenberg entered. Hector’s own room was a bit of a mess with laundry scattered on the floor. “Have you seen the shooting range, aunt Regina?” he asked. There was just time before nightfall.
“No, I haven’t,” Regina replied. “Would you like to show me?”
“Yes,” Hector said, beaming. It was a great idea. After all, it was an important place. “Stephan is teaching me to shoot there.”
“Very well.” Regina held out her arm and linked it with Hectors, and he led her across the lawn between the buildings. They passed a couple of hunters who shot Hector a few strange glances, but they didn’t ask any questions.
A shot rang out. Someone was practising. Good. Then Hector could suggest looking at the proceedings or talking to the hunter in question.
But it wasn’t a hunter. As they approached the shooting range, the sight of a boy around Hector’s age met them. He had a rifle propped against his shoulder and was wearing a concentrated frown. He was aiming for a target in the other end of the range.
“Do you know him?” asked Regina quietly.
Hector nodded. He was a little proud of his aunt for lowering her voice in order not to disturb. The boy braced himself against the recoil and pulled the trigger. Then he lowered the rifle and turned to Hector and Regina.
“Hello, Hector,” he said with a grin. He had definitely hit the mark. Otherwise he wouldn’t be smiling like that. “Mrs. Rothenberg?” His accent was strong, but he spoke German nicely.
Hector nodded. “Aunt Regina, this is Louis. We train together.”
Regina held out her hand, and Louis took it with a smile. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
She smiled at him. The reservation and coolness that had been present during the course of her conversations with Stephan and everyone else was gone now. Was it because Louis was a kid? Or because he was Hector’s friend? Hector couldn’t tell. “Are you all alone on the shooting range?” she asked.
“Today I am, yes,” Louis replied. “My teacher is busy, but I wanted to practise anyway.”
“That sounds very diligent,” Regina said. “Do you do that too, Hector?”
“We’re both going to be hunters,” Louis said and puffed out his chest like a bird. “Hector will probably go with Stephan on a hunt soon. Only because he’s a little older than me.”
Hector didn’t take the bait this time. He and Louis always competed. They were good friends and would defend each other with words or fists any day, but they were rivals too. Not that it was really a competition. There was a need for hunters, and they were both good. But they kept each other busy, and their respective teachers encouraged it. It made them give a little more.
“I assume you will have time for dinner despite your training?” Regina said to Louis.
“Yes, I do.”
“My aunt is dining with us tonight,” Hector informed him. He couldn’t help picturing how Stephan was probably instructing the kitchen staff this very minute.
“I think we are having game,” Louis said. “They were skinning a couple of deer earlier.”
“That sounds lovely,” Regina replied.
“The food must be served now, too,” Louis added.
“They got a bit delayed today,” Hector quickly interjected. He could explain the matter to Louis later, and they would laugh at Stephan’s feverish attempts at pleasing her when he wasn’t around. “But I think it’s all right to head towards the dining hall now.”