|The Path of Skulls
Author: DrunkenMonkeyKing PM
The capitol of the Moren Empire; Loste Mor, the City of Black Wonders, this is where the story begins.Rated: Fiction M - English - Fantasy/Crime - Chapters: 19 - Words: 29,082 - Reviews: 25 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 08-21-09 - Published: 11-03-08 - id: 2591585
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The day had passed and gone by the time they could return their answer to Madame Harpe. Paellen, Lucas and Oz returned to Nobility Way and pushed through the cloying scent of jasmine to once again return to the common room of the brothel. It was much the same as it had been the day before and Paellen plopped himself on the couch, doubting he would have to wait as long as he had the day before.
Lucas entertained himself by grabbing one of the little faux gems and rolling it back and forth across his knuckles, flipping it around in the air and then catching it. "Think anyone actually tries and takes these?" He asked, tapping it against the wood.
Oz paused from his pacing to shrug. "Who knows? I'm sure some have tried, though I'd rather go up against the guards then any of the cathouses." He kept moving, agitated. If there was one thing that made Two-Steps more nervous than he already was, it would be half-naked women.
Much as Paellen had thought, it wasn't long at all before the secret door opened and a woman came out. It wasn't Angelica today, but another girl, her skin the color of ebony, her hair dark as obsidian. She wore a short skirt that left nothing to the imagination as she curtsied before them. Oz grew at least another three shades of deeper red.
"Mr. Silkfingers, we've been expecting you. If your men would be so kind to wait here or take advantage of our services, we will conduct you alone to Madame Corva." She smiled, revealing teeth that were as bright as her skin was dark. Lucas didn't look up from his sleight of hand, while for his part, Oz was doing his best to keep his eyes above the woman's neckline.
"Madame Corva knows very well that I brought my associates with me so we all could discuss these future opportunities." Paellen said, remaining seated. "Tell her that if she won't allow them in, she can consider the deal off and all hostilities engaged."
"As you wish, sir," she curtsied again, seeming to gain some great satisfaction from Oz's reaction once again. "If you will kindly wait here, I will ask her of her desire."
"Very good." Paellen said, kicking up his feet to make himself more comfortable.
"Would you care for any wine or dance while you wait?" The woman asked, glancing at Oz as she did so.
Before Lucas could agree or Oz could squeak, Paellen shook his head. "We're fine, thank you. We'll just wait."
"As you will," she said, being sure to brush up against Oz on her way out. Another tiny smile appeared on her lips as the thief fidgeted away. With that, the door was shut once again and the trio were left by themselves for a time.
"Oz," Lucas said, picking up another of the two gems and attempting to juggle them, "Please tell me you aren't going to faint before we get there."
Oz (if it was possible) blushed even harder. He pretended to look at one of the paintings on the wall for a moment before finally saying, "She wasn't wearing any panties!"
"No, she wasn't," Paellen agreed, "I believe it tends to make her job faster and easier. She seems to enjoy the twitchy types, though. Care for an hour with her after this is over? It'd be my treat. Maybe you'd finally relax."
"I'm perfectly relaxed!" He stammered out. "Just… fine!" He finally turned away from the painting and slumped on the couch next to them. "Can we just hurry this up and get out of here?"
Paellen leaned forward and put his hand on Oz's knee. In a sympathetic voice he said, "Don't worry, Oz. They won't bite you." He chuckled, "You have to pay extra for that."
Oz brushed Paellen's hand away, "Can we just focus on the business we're here for? Please?"
Before anyone could say anything, the door reopened and the night's Hostess walked out again. "Madame Corva agrees, as long as the usual precautions are taken." Two women stepped out from behind her, each in outfits that left less to the imagination then the one before. Angelica was one of them, the other he didn't recognize. Paellen hoped the noise coming from Oz's throat wasn't as much of a whimper as it sounded.
Lucas's grey eyes flashed. "Precautions?" He asked, as Oz mimicked Paellen's example by leaning forward, palm against the wall. One of the others made her way to Paellen while the ebony beauty leapt on Oz like a cat pouncing on a mouse. Two-Steps jumped like he was goosed as her dark fingers ran over his body.
"Hey," Paellen said with a good-natured wink, "I normally have to pay for that kind of treatment." He was rather disappointed with how professional his own girl was being.
Lucas remained seated on the couch. The fake gems were dropped. Angelica looked down at him. "No weapons will be allowed in the presence of Madame Corva. You will leave them here with us and you will get them back once you leave, Surgeon." Her hand crept to the back of her dress, where Paellen was quite sure the whip from the day before was still hiding.
"Do I look stupid to you? I don't trust any of you enough to go in there empty-handed." That cold voice brought a drop of sweat onto Paellen's brow. The woman searching him was satisfied and let him push away from the wall.
Just in time for Paellen to see Angelica bring out the whip with one smooth motion of her hand. Her voice was just as frozen as Lucas's when she replied, "Then you won't see Madame Corva until we take them from you."
With the merest flicker of his wrists, a dagger appeared in each of Lucas's hands. "Care to give it a shot?" His eyes locked onto the whip, his body tensed. If Paellen didn't do something soon, blood was going to be shed.
"Lucas, just give up the damn blades!" He said, ignoring how the girl who'd just searched him was quietly making her way to his back. "What do you think's going to happen? They'll disappear if you let them out of your sight for five goddamn minutes?"
"I don't think anything will happen to them," Lucas replied to Paellen, his eyes never leaving Angelica. "Because, I'm not giving them up."
With every passing breath, Paellen imagined he could feel the knife that was undoubtedly hovering at his back, could see how quickly this little room of fake extravagances could lead to some very real death. He looked over to Oz for help, only to see the thief getting his ear nibbled on by the woman who seemed to be searching him for anything but weapons. The thief was so bright red, it looked like his face was about to burn a hole directly into the wall.
"Take Oz as a hostage!" Paellen blurted out.
Everyone in the room, paused to look at him like he'd grown mad. All except for Oz who merely let out a screeched, "What!?"
But now that he'd had the idea, Paellen rolled with it. He assumed his most confident airs and explained. "Ladies, our dear Surgeon here holds Two-Steps in as high regard as you do your own Madame. If you will allow him to retain his weapons for his peace of mind, we will allow you to hold onto the life of our friend for your own. Is this satisfactory for every one involved?"
"No, it damn well isn't!" Oz squealed. The ladies took a moment to think, then Angelica nodded to the woman still toying with Oz. With a simple flick of one of those dark fingers, and one of her rings now glittered with a thin needle at the end of it, a thick greenish paste of something wicked coating its point.
"Congratulations, lover," the woman whispered gently into Oz's ear. "We get to be together a bit longer." If Oz looked thankful over this, it sure didn't show.
Seeing that everyone at the moment seemed mollified, Paellen asked, "Now can we finally get this over with?"
The office of Madame Corva was fairly different at night than it was during the day. The ghostwood desk lit the office with a soft light that left no need for lamps or candles. The gems that gave off such brilliant displays during the day were nothing more than twinkling bits of colored light that hovered in and out of view.
Paellen walked into the room first, Lucas stalking behind him. Behind them Oz tried his best to shuffle in with the ebony woman's arms still circled around him. The door closed behind them, Madame Corva allowing them to wait until she was done with whatever paperwork was engaging her attention at the moment.
After a few moments of leaving the trio standing, she looked up. The old woman's stare was no different, her frigid politeness unchanged. "You grace us with your presence once again, Mr. Silkfingers. Please do tell me what threats and ultimatums you have for me today."
Her eyes glanced over Lucas as he sneered at the opulence in the room. His grey eyes clashed against Madame Corva's as he slowly and deliberately grabbed one of the gems hanging from the ceiling and pulled it off its wire, playing with as he had the baubles below. His eyes never left hers as the diamond twinkled, a star flickering back and forth from his hands.
Madame Corva didn't respond to the insult, her icy smile twitched not one bit. "I see our Surgeon is feeling a bit out of sorts today."
"I saw five children starving to death not two streets away from here," Lucas said, fist clenched tight around the jewel. "And here you have enough money to feed half the city decorating your office."
"They were not my children, Surgeon, thus I do not consider it my concern. Rest well assured that my own people eat their fill."
She turned her attention to Oz, a wry smile appearing on her lips as she saw the predicament he was in. "Enjoying our visit are we, Two-Steps?" She asked, her gaze dropping down to his breeches. If it was possible, Oz blushed even more. "Jaquelyn, you may leave for now. I understand you wish to play with your new toy but I have business to discuss with these gentlemen that I would rather have kept private."
With a final sigh and caress, the woman twisted her ring until the poison pin was safely concealed, pulled out three chairs for the men and then made her exit. Once she had left, Madame Corva motioned for them to sit down. Paellen accepted the seat with a gracious nod. Lucas fell back into it, still playing with the gem and doing his best to intimidate Corva with his glare. Oz merely rubbed his throat and began pacing back and forth.
Paellen decided to open up negotiations. "My associates and I have decided that it would be worthwhile to take you up on your kind offer, however we do have some questions and concerns we would like addressed."
Those pale blue eyes remained unmoved. "Of course you do. But as you know, Mr. Silkfingers, everything in this world has its price and consequently nothing is free."
Paellen leaned forward. "We had an agreement, Madame. Your secret and territory shall remain safe in exchange for allowing us to take your place into the Third Level and the introduction to the Diran scholar which will allow us to blend in. I'd rather hate to think you've been wasting our time by changing the terms."
"The one attempting to change the terms is yourself, Mr. Silkfingers. I made you the offer, so I know full well what it entails. Information was not one of those things." She slipped the slim optics she'd been wearing off her face and tucked them into a drawer. "If you wish for answers then I shall have them as well. There are things that I wish to know as well. Satisfy my curiosity and I shall satisfy yours as well."
Paellen looked over at his companions. Lucas was still slumped in his seat, if what he was holding hadn't been a diamond, it surely would've been crushed by now. He shrugged. Oz still paced up and down the room, but he caught Paellen's glance and answered it with a nod.
He turned his attention back to Madame Corva, "I see no problems with this. As long as we start the questions. The depth of our answers will rely on yours." He turned around in his seat to find Oz glancing over the books in the bookcase. "Oz, you start."
The young thief nodded and turned away from the bookcase. He still kept up his agitated pace, his legs refusing to allow him to be still as he began. "Alright, my main concern is about our finances and territory. We've set ourselves up quite nicely here. If, and I'm still not convinced we should, but if we do leave the Second Tier, what will happen to our money and territory without our protection?"
"That would be quite up to yourselves, Two-Steps," Madame Corva responded with a negligent wave of her hand. "I am far too concerned with my own territory to presume to tell you what will happen in yours. As for your finances, it is my understanding that many of the Empire's banks can be found on the Third Tier. Do try and avoid repeating your first experience with banks however, little Two-Steps. I've been told that aristocrats tend to frown upon such obvious larceny. They may not be as lenient as I was."
Oz scratched the back of his head sheepishly, but refused to be deterred. "So then you promise not to infringe upon our interests in our absence?"
The soft light glowing from the desk beneath her only emphasized the scowl that appeared on her face. "That would be two questions, Two-Steps. However, since the answer should be obvious, I won't hold it against you. I promise no such thing, indeed. I've merely stated that for the time being the issues of my own territory are of paramount importance to me. Let me be perfectly clear, if circumstances should change in the future, it shall be business as usual."
Well, at least she's being honest, Paellen thought to himself. Madame Corva swiveled in her chair to look straight at the young thief. "Now what I am curious about, Two-Steps, is a simple matter. Both you and Mr. Silkfingers have both convinced the city that you are no longer amongst the living. Rumors around the city have already began about Mr. Silkfingers here still being alive-"
"Told you," Lucas interrupted to tell Paellen.
Madame Corva ignored this. "However, the rumors about your death have in fact not abated. Which I must admit to finding intriguing as you've been 'dead' for even longer than our ever charming Mr. Silkfingers here. How have you managed this?"
Oz stopped his pacing to look at her and then look around the room. After a moment of thought he seemed to come to some conclusion and began pacing once again. "Well, my 'death' as you put it, was much more public than Paellen's. At least three dozen people saw what they thought was me being stabbed to death. As for people still thinking I'm dead, that's simple. I just don't allow them to see me."
"In this city?" Madame Harpe asked with her disdainful little laugh. "Surely you've a better explanation than that."
"There are always places to hide, Madame Corva," Oz said, his pacing bringing him back toward the bookcase. "Give me two steps," to prove his point, he took a running jump with one foot and sprang up the bookcase with the other, rolling onto the top until he was out of sight, "and I can disappear anywhere in this city."
His head peeked out from the top, "People only look where they want to." Then with another small roll, he landed gracefully back on his feet and resumed his pacing.
Rather than be impressed with this acrobatic display, she merely nodded her head and looked at Lucas. "And what does the ever frightening figure of the Surgeon wish to know of me?" Sarcasm dripped from her voice like venom.
Lucas tossed the jewel up in the air and caught it. Flipping it in his hand over and over like a common coin. "This 'King' fellow from the Hidden Court. I want to know about him."
"I have never met the man, nor have we corresponded often. He is the ruler of his domain just as I am of mine. By merest coincidence I managed to do a great favor for him in the past."
"Not good enough," Lucas said. "How can you even talk to him? Communication is forbidden between the Levels of Loste Mor."
"That is a thing simpler to explain than it was to accomplish. Communication between the Tiers is expressly forbidden with the exception of special circumstances, such as the appearance of this Diran noble. However, while it is difficult, it is not impossible for someone within the Capital to send a letter to the outside world. Nor is it impossible for a letter to be delivered into the Capital from the outside world."
"Alright," Lucas said, flipping the gem again, his tone as if he were the master here and Madame Harpe a scullery maid begging him a favor. "I'll accept that one."
"I allowed Two-Steps two questions for the price of one, Surgeon, but I don't think I shall do the same for you." She leaned forward on her desk, for the first time since the meeting began, a sliver of emotion trembled through her voice. "Jack Needles. Did you kill him?"
For the first time, Lucas fumbled the jewel. It slipped out of his hand, tumbling to the floor. He broke his gaze away from Madame Corva's. Eyes locked on the floor, he said, "…I did."
Madame Corva's lip twisted, her jaw clenched ever so slightly. Then taking a deep breath, she asked, "How did he die?"
The fierce countenance Lucas had been displaying just moments before had melted away. Like a child being forced to admit his own offense, he quietly added, "You don't want to know." He fumbled under his chair for the jewel that had slipped but didn't play with it anymore, merely spinning it in his hands.
Madame Corva's eyes were blue fire, her voice came out frozen. "In that fact you are mistaken, Surgeon. Tell me how he died." She clasped her hands together.
"I…" he paused, took a deep breath. Paellen felt surprise at all this. He'd seen Lucas kill dozens of men without ever batting an eye. He'd known Lucas had respected Needles, but he'd never guessed it had affected the young man this deeply. "I caught him by surprise. I knew better than to let him fight on equal footing with me, couldn't risk him killing me."
Madame Corva didn't move, she listened with full attention.
"So I asked if I could join his crew, get his trust," Lucas shook his head, "He knew I'd looked up to him since I was a kid, so it was easy enough to do. We got into your house and I showed him the ledgers to throw him off his game." He looked up at this point, determined to make Madame Corva hurt as much as he did at being forced to recall it, "He was surprised, so I knocked him off his feet. Then before he could realize what was happening, I landed on top of him and kept stabbing him until he stopped moving."
Madame Corva's face, if it managed to show anything, was the barest hint of disgust. "You killed one of the greatest men this city has ever seen like a sneaking coward? I sincerely hope you rot in the lowest hell imaginable, Surgeon."
Lucas's fist clenched the gem again but this time there was no anger in his voice. He looked down once more. "I'm not proud of it. But in the long run it was either him or us." He took a moment to look up and glance at Paellen and Oz. Oz stopped his pacing to pat him on the shoulder twice. "But if I had to do it again? You damn well bet I would."
"I see," was Madame Corva's only response. Before she allowed herself to dip too deeply into her thoughts however, she turned toward Paellen. "Alright, Mr. Silkfingers. Ask me your final question and I shall ask you mine and then I look quite forward to never seeing any of you ever again."
Paellen coughed and shot one last look at Lucas, still staring deep into the gem. "What is this problem that 'King' asks your assistance with? I would rather not involve myself in issues that I am unknowledgeable about."
Madame Corva merely shrugged. "As I told you, the man and I have rarely corresponded. I am aware that an unknown factor has been interfering with his own business, but other than that I am as ignorant as yourself. He seems to think that my experience in remaining hidden will help him see things from an angle he himself has not yet perceived."
"That is not much of answer, Madame Harpe," Paellen said. "I am quite tempted to give your question a similar response."
"Always the haggler, eh Mr. Silkfingers?" she responded, "Well, since I am most curious for an indepth and thorough answer for the question I have for you, I will allow you one more if you extend to me the same courtesy."
Paellen took a moment to think. What else could he possibly ask her? What more did they need information on? His eyes lit up as he realized an appropriate subject. "Crimson Brokers. What do you know about them?" Lucas gritted his teeth at the question, Oz (who'd still yet to hear about their encounter) merely gave a puzzled glance and continued with his pacing.
He'd been expecting perhaps a guilty start or even more telling, no reaction at all. Instead, Madame Corva looked slightly puzzled. But she merely shrugged it off and began. "I pay them a small annual fee to dissuade them from accepting any contracts on my head. Though with you having taken care of Jewels Richards for me, I may have to reconsider the expense. They are professionals and have come to Loste Mor a few times from people who have hired them to take care of a pesky merchant or noble from the Third Level. If it concerns my business, they will offer me a notice before entering into the city." She drummed her fingers on the table. "Other than that I'm afraid I know merely the usual rumors about them. They are professionals and will complete any job they've been hired to do, no matter how much blood it costs them. Now unless you are dissatisfied with this answer, may I finally ask my question?"
"Yes, of course, Madame Harpe," Paellen said, while tugging on one ear. Opinions? Was the question the hand signal directed at Oz and Lucas. Lucas rubbed his shoulder, showing he was non-committal. Oz rubbed the side of his nose, confirming Paellen's belief that she was telling the truth. He ignored the curious look the thief accompanied with the gesture.
"Jewels Richards had been a considerable bother to me for many years now. To say that I have sent my fair share of assassins at him would be an understatement. So I must admit some curiosity how you managed to get rid of him."
Paellen smiled. "It was a simple game by the name of Reaper's Shuffle, Madame Harpe. A certain Vince Pride introduced it to me, years ago."
"The Whisperer?" She asked, eyebrows raising in surprise. "What would Jewels Richards be doing playing games that entertain scum like that?"
"He was unaware of how seriously such 'scum', as you put it, take that game. He was also unaware of the rules of the game, which always leaves one man alive and the others quite dead. As a matter of fact, Pride and my three companions have an ongoing game of Reaper's Shuffle still going on. But due to the intelligence of myself and the Surgeon's ability with knives, he agreed to allow the game take a much more long-winded and natural course. All it cost him at the time was his voice."
Lucas grunted. "Should've cost the bastard a lot more, Paellen."
"So you got his own men to turn against him?" Madame Corva asked.
Paellen shook his finger. "Now, now, Madame Harpe. We've answered your questions and you have answered ours. If there is to be any more enlightenment, we may have to renegotiate the terms."
She scowled in response. "Fine then, let us return to our business, shall we? In return for introducing you to the scholar who will allow you to infiltrate the Third Level, you shall deliver to me the ledgers you confiscated from my home along with any copies you may have made. Does that sound about right, Mr. Silkfingers?"
"That seems a fair trade to me, Madame Harpe," Paellen responded and placed the copied ledgers on her desk. "You shall be given the location of the originals after we have left, not before."
Her lips pursed as she brought the optics to her eyes once again and quickly flipped through the books. Upon finding everything in order, she nodded to herself and pulled a small ring off her finger, holding it out to Paellen. "Go to the following address," she jotted down a quick note and placed into Paellen's hand, "and show him this ring. He will recognize you as Phaidon Harpe, no matter your age." She took a long look at him, trying to impress him with the importance of the object he held, "More men died trying to get that ring into my hands than I have ever used in any other task, Mr. Silkfingers."
Paellen slipped the ring onto his finger and admired it in the soft light. It was a simple platinum band that held a tiny emerald in its center, the gem being circled by small flakes of onyx. "Elegant enough, Madame. But why the high price for such a small piece of jewelry?"
Her voice took a tone of irony as she replied, "Why, Mr. Silkfingers. I have answered your questions and you have answered mine. Shall we have to renegotiate the terms for more answers?"
Paellen shot a glance at both of his companions. Lucas returned the same signal as before, signifying it meant nothing to him. Oz, however, was emphatic in that they had enough. "I suppose not," Paellen replied, playing with his new acquisition. He stood up and Lucas followed his lead, letting the jewel drop to the floor. Oz stopped his pacing. "If that is all then, Madame Harpe, a pleasant evening to you."
"And to you," she said, then swiveled around in her chair to look out the window. "I believe you can show yourself out, Mr. Silkfingers."