A Stake in Secrets

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Chapter 2 - Finn

“He didn’t seem to get the deed done, your grace.”

I sigh. I’m staring out the window at a golden orb reclining into the recesses of a dark sea, an ember struggling to burn brightly before it disintegrates into black ashes.

Silvery, uncontrollable strands of hair glued to her face by tears, a woman sobs. She’s kneeling, begging me to perform the impossible, “Bring him back! Bring my son back!”

“I’m sorry, Agave.”

I reach out both hands to help her up, but she pushes my arms away. Wiping the tears from her face, she stands up. “No. You’re not sorry. If you were, you would’ve asked if he was ok. Instead, the first thing you asked was whether he finished the mission.”

Reclining in a plush velvet chair across the room, General Mason takes a large inhale of a smoking cigar, releases an O-shaped cloud, and utters, “Agave Burkert, stop being so dramatic. We all know you loved your delinquent third son the least. You’re merely here because you want compensation in terms of his grace’s land. Your husband’s trade of animal parts and such must not be doing well, I’m afraid, or you wouldn’t be this desperate. . .”

Agave scrambles over to the general, ready to tear apart his face. Mason pulls out his machete and twirls it, feigning nonchalance.

I murmur, “That’s enough.”

I look at General Mason. “Now is not the time for that kind of talk.”

To Agave, I say, “I will make sure to compensate you for your grief. Land is not the most plentiful resource in my possession now, so please let me know what you would like in terms of gold. I will do my best to fulfill your requests.”

Coming to my rescue, my brother Benedict places his hand on my shoulder and signals for Agave and General Mason to leave us. They both exit without a word.

After they close the door behind them, he sighs, “Poor Agave, losing another son like that.”

I mutter, “Indeed, it’s unfortunate.”

But it’s more unfortunate for her son. The woman cared little for him. Give her gold in exchange for his life, and she’s out of the room without a fight.

My brother clasps his hands together. “You know, Finn, I’ve been thinking that we should do some brotherly bonding, maybe hiking in the woods. . . You know, just you and me, to help you relax a bit from. . . all of this.”

“Yeah, Benedict, sounds like a plan. . .” I trail off because in comes a tall, stocky, ruddy Huguer followed by the Board of Premiers. The Premiers, as always, are dressed like grim reapers—black top hats, black overcoats, black pants, black shoes, black. . . you get the idea.

They’re a reminder of how a King doesn’t rule. The Premiers are like the children of the family, while the King is like the parent. Rather than a ruler, I’m a mediator, making sure that one party doesn’t stifle another and that everyone gets a piece of the pie, though the pieces may not be the same size.

Huguer, my family’s faithful servant who has a face half-metal and half-flesh, holds the door as the Premiers file into the room and sit around the table.

As usual, I take my uncomfortable seat at the head.

Rosy-cheeked and a nose forever stuck up, Jon Clover, a man who has a large slice of the Obsidian Clan’s land and therefore a large slice of the pie, clears his throat. “Your grace, would you care to inform us of the results of the mission?”

I don’t hesitate. “As most of you have probably heard by now, Yorin Burkert failed the mission.”

I pause and scan the faces at the table. No wide eyes or gasps. One thing I’m always impressed by is the speed at which information flies into the Premiers’ ears.

Clover nods his head and remarks, “So Yorin’s dead, I see.”

I continue, “We gave him a chance to atone for the treason he committed and avoid death with this mission, but he lacked the competence to complete it.”

I had sent Yorin, disguised as myself, to extract information from the two Gneiss girls. Unfortunately, he failed.

Drumming his knuckles against the table, Frederick Wiles—a hoary hunchback whose brutish, uncompromising nature and bluntness earned him an elected seat at the table as Leader of the Talcs—scowls, “I’m sure the Steelies wouldn’t mind us losing another Talc, but I’m sick of it.”

The Steelies were the successors of seemingly interminable treasures dating as far back as the establishment of the Obsidian Clan.

In effect, they were old money. The farther back the patrician bloodline went, the greater the social status. They were men of tradition—men intent on preserving the old and barring the new.

Unfortunately for the Steelies, the Talcs, or the “new” men who had recently risen to wealth and therefore power from the development of overland and overseas trade, refused to accept the status quo.

To them, the battle against the Steelies was a matter of having what they considered a more “democratic” voice among the elites. The Talc thought they stood for the common people.

Like an ogre who’s too large for his seat, Frederick stands up clumsily and points at some of the men in the room. “I’m sick of being manipulated by all you Steelies. You’re all backstabbers and liars. It’s true that Yorin Burkert had a weakness for women. But treason? He wasn’t capable of it. He was framed, probably by one of you. He was a good Talc and would’ve never betrayed the King.”

Rolling his eyes, Giorge Machiavelli—an attractive, young, and prosperous businessman who made it to the table selling spirits, cigars, gambling games, the unnamed services of girls, and most importantly secrets—crushes his cigar into the ashtray and snickers. “The evidence says not. The girls he’s slept with say not.”

A few chuckles fill the room.

Wiles hollers, “I tell you, he was framed!”

Like in every other meeting, the Premiers start throwing knives at each other, except substitute the knives with verbal accusations.

“Are you doubting the jurisdiction of the Honorable Court?” a Steelie calls out.

Another cries, “Why would we frame Yorin? If we were to frame someone, it wouldn’t be someone as licentious as him!”

“Exactly! If we really wanted to, we could’ve dug up his dirt anywhere! Pick his favorite tavern for goodness sake. . . And poof, he’s in the dungeons! No need to go through this mess of treason!”

A Talc exclaims, “Yorin was an easy target! A Steelie committed treason, and to cover it up, you conspired to put the blame on a Talc!”

Leptis Magma, a tall, lanky man with deep-set charcoal eyes, slams his hands on the table.

He’s a man of few words.

Although unconfirmed, many rumors—true and untrue—cloud over him: rumors that he kills as a sport and drinks his victims’ blood, rumors that he only ever loved one woman and that woman committed suicide to get away from him, rumors that he’s immensely wealthy because he deals in the black market.

With dark black hair draping over his shoulders like a brush dipped in black ink, Leptis articulates placidly but forcefully. “You call us liars, but you didn’t complain one bit when the King offered Yorin a chance to live. Yorin died on his own account, incapable of defeating two young Gneiss girls. Instead of whining, we ought to focus on fixing the Plan.”

The room falls silent. A cold fog descends upon the crowd of men. No one dares to talk, or even breathe for that matter, in fear of offending Leptis.

I break the suffocating silence. “All right, gentlemen. Let’s call it a day. Think of ideas to amend the Plan and report to me tomorrow. Meeting adjourned.”

The men shuffle out of my office without a word.

After they all leave, I signal to Huguer to leave me with my brother.

Benedict walks over to me. “Finn, what are you going to do about the Plan now that Yorin’s dead?”

“I’ll take care of it.”

I chat with my brother a bit about what’s happening in the countryside.

He just came back from there after taking care of some “personal issues” for a few months. I’m guessing “personal issues” refer to him courting the renowned beauty Melissa, the lovely daughter of a wealthy tea merchant.

I tease him about it. He turns red and brushes it off.

After Benedict leaves, I’m left to my own thoughts.

What I didn’t tell everyone was that I didn’t end up killing Yorin.

I found him in the musty cavern, gushes of blood spilling from where the girl had stabbed him. I told him that I was going to end his life because he failed the mission.

He didn’t flinch and didn’t try to run. He remained kneeling, both hands on the ground in front of him, sobbing.

My machete was inches from his neck, but before I swung, he mumbled that he didn’t do it. He didn’t kill the man. He acknowledged that he had captured the man, but then he took pity on him and let him go.

I decided not to take Yorin’s head. I took pity on a man who took pity on another man. God, what a maze. At least, I thought, a man alive is worth more than a man dead.

I told him, “I’ll give you one more chance to survive.”

He had stopped sobbing and looked up at me.

“I’ll give you a top-secret mission. It’s just between you and me, but no one must know you’re alive. . . Of course, you can escape, but you’ll be sure I’ll have the Steelies pinning up your Wanted poster for miles. . . You know how kind they tend to be. . .”

He nodded frantically. He agreed to whatever I said, most likely without thinking twice. It’s easy to agree to any deed as long as you can have your life.

The Gneiss Lord may have slipped from my grasp this time, but he’s wrong if he thinks information is passed only through words.

That cut in Yorin’s stomach—it’s the work of a master swordsman.

Sending two novice girls to see me would’ve been an insult.

Sending two skilled assassins disguised as novices only means one thing. The Gneiss Lord is scared.

He’s becoming weaker.

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