Author's Note: As some of you might have realized, this is a rewritten and much improved version of Chapter 1, thanks in no small part to my new beta reader, Dancing Jax. The various reviewers also helped greatly. I would like to extend my gratitude to Dancing Jax, my reviwers, and you, the reader, for taking part in this story with me.
Chapter 1 – The Contractor of Wisdom
"Minerva, I am now officially warning you of imminent danger. As per our usual long-term agreement, you will have to pay a double fee for our next negotiation."
"Thank you, Solomon. I wish to begin a negotiation immediately," Minerva Vallering thought. It would be necessary for her to have the djinn's services if she was to survive. She closed her eyes as the mental gateway between them opened gradually, and prepared herself for the upcoming bargain with her djinn.
The roar of the crowd around her died away, and the eager gestures of the merchants and peddlers gradually froze to a stop before fading away into nothingness. Countless pages took their place, surrounding her like a miniature tornado. Despite the seemingly familiar curves and lines that formed the letters written upon them, it was clear that they were not of any human script. Minerva began to exchange her thoughts with Solomon at the characteristically accelerated speed of the mental link between djinn and contractor.
"Certainly. Allow me to remind you that you still possess your maximum limit of 3000 Soul Coins for the day. This is surely a time to be generous, is it not?" Solomon said. The pieces of paper that made up his body swirled around Minerva as he did so.
"You wish. I offer 50 Soul Coins in exchange for exact information on the danger."
"I see that we start off with the usual underestimations. I reject that offer and suggest a fee of 400 Soul Coins."
"100 Soul Coins," Minerva countered.
Solomon paused for a few moments. Finally, he snapped, "You are in imminent danger, my girl. Any fee lower than 300 is unacceptable! Why, that is merely ten percent of your maximum limit!"
"I admit that you have a point there. However, I suspect that there will be many more dangerous events in the future. Please, do try to see it from my point of view. The previous condition will mean a final, doubled fee of 600 Soul Coins. 2400 Soul Coins is hardly enough to work with for future negotiations!"
The pages whirled around Minerva as Solomon considered this new argument. Occasionally, several new sheets of paper would attach themselves to the revolving stream that surrounded her.
"Very well. I will make a request of 250 Soul Coins. No less than that for the information that you're getting, Minerva!"
"Allow me to suggest a compromise. I will offer 150 Soul Coins in exchange for information on the position of the perpetrator of this danger, only. If more than one perpetrator appears, I will offer an undoubled bonus of 100 Soul Coins."
"Gambling, I see," Solomon said, chuckling."Well, I will call your bluff. I will accept this offer, but only if the bonus is increased to 200 Soul Coins. That works out to 500 Soul Coins if there are indeed multiple attackers. Alternatively, I will accept an absolute offer of 200 Soul Coins in exchange for information on all of the perpetrators, which works out to 400 Soul Coins. That is the best offer you're going to get."
Minerva opened her mouth to speak, before abruptly closing it again. She wished that she could turn her head to observe the crowd more carefully, but that could not be done during a negotiation. Solomon was obscuring her line of sight, in any case. She had to make a decision soon; Solomon was more and more likely to break off the mental link with each moment that passed. Besides, even if Solomon was not inclined to do so, her current state of accelerated thought was not going to last forever. She would have to make any further negotiations in real-time if she hit her limit, and that was tantamount to suicide.
Her past experiences had taught her to stick to her convictions. She knew that it was unlikely for a large group of assailants to make their move in such a crowded area. It would be much more efficient for a single person to do the job and sneak away in the confusion. Solomon was simply trying to mislead her. Yes, that had to be the case.
"I will revise my offer as you have requested. 150 Soul Coins with an undoubled bonus of 200, should there be more than one attacker."
"Good. Those are acceptable terms for me. You drive a hard bargain for an academic, girl."
Both the djinn and the contractor spoke at the same time.
A scalding hot pain surged through Minerva's head as Solomon drained the agreed amount of life-force from her, and she pressed her right hand against her forehead. She had experienced this side-effect innumerable times before, but had never become accustomed to it. Still, she had the information that she needed now.
A gentle gust of wind stroked Minerva's short, dark hair as movement once more returned to the world around her. The afternoon sun unleashed the full intensity of its light and heat without any restraints. Various members of the crowd jostled her as they passed, clad in green and grey outfits. Others were trading coins with gleeful merchants for the item of their choice. Solomon removed himself from her immediate surroundings, positioning himself nearby. It was soon clear that the pages that comprised his body were not material; a blonde woman wearing a long-sleeved, crimson silk dress was able to stride through without any problems. Minerva pulled out a knife from her belt and took a large step to her right, spinning around as she did so.
A dagger stabbed the empty air where she had been mere moments before. Minerva observed her assailant, retreating from the man as she did so. He wore a brown leather tunic and looked just like any ordinary citizen, save for the weapon that he was wielding. Would he continue to press the attack, or hope that no one had noticed what he had done?
The former was the option that he chose; it was likely that he did not want the crowd to fill in the gap that she had created. The assassin charged towards Minerva, tucking his elbow close to his body. He pulled his hand back in preparation for a fatal blow.
Minerva's vision flashed white as she reopened her connection with Solomon for a brief moment.
"Solomon. I wish to request for information on the path of his next attack at the usual price. I also wish to request for the necessary martial experience to strike his wrist in a counter-attack."
"That will cost you 50 and 300 Soul Coins respectively."
"How about 50 and 200?"
"Hmm… Very well. My, I must say I am feeling generous today."
Two sharp shocks accompanied this transaction.
The aim of the assassin was now clear to Minerva, despite her utter lack of martial training. He was going for a direct stab to the heart to kill in a single strike. Minerva allowed her knife hand to drop gently to her side as she swayed backwards past the range of the strike. Her next movement was a quick upwards stab with her knife. Minerva did not have much physical strength, but she did not need to. Her knife cleanly sliced through the middle of his wrist, and red liquid rapidly seeped out of the wound.
By now, the people around the pair had received sufficient time to register this series of violent events. Most members of the crowd backed off hurriedly, eager to get on with their business. The blonde noblewoman who was dressed in red screamed, her voice cutting through the discordant murmur of the crowd, and collapsed to the floor with one hand placed against her forehead. Several men rushed to her aid.
Minerva pulled the knife out with some difficulty, speaking to the assassin as she did so.
"You have already lost the element of surprise. The odds are no longer in your favour. Cease your attack and I will not be forced to kill you."
The man shrugged with good grace.
"I suppose I shall comply, contractor," he said, putting his hands up in the air.
"You're as soft as ever, Minerva. Kill the man, and you place yourself in much less danger," Solomon said.
"And you would have charged me a much heftier fee for the knowledge that is required to do that, no doubt."
"But of course. 'Wisdom' does not come cheap, girl. Everything has its appropriate price."
"It is more advantageous to leave him alive, in any case. It is possible that I will be able to acquire more information from him. Besides, I highly doubt that the Grand Merchant of Reisfall will readily forgive the crimes of a contractor from another kingdom. Keep in mind that I do not have the same amount of freedom here, Solomon."
Having concluded her little chat with Solomon, the dark-haired woman turned her attention back to the assassin. The conversation had not taken even a second, thanks to the mental link.
"I would not be against allowing you to escape in exchange for information on your employer," she said, sure that the city guards would take quite some time to arrive at the scene.
"An extraordinarily tempting offer, but I am afraid I must decline."
"I shall wait until the guards have arrived to arrest you, then."
The assassin smiled. "You do that."
Minerva looked around her impatiently. Judging from the assassin's nonchalance, he probably had some kind of influence with the authorities and would not remain long in jail. She was eager to put an end to this farce and return to her original objective in Reisfall. The noblewoman staggered near Minerva, breaking free from the circle of admirers.
"I am quite alright now. Thank you all very much," the noblewoman said, putting on a brave smile.
A white-hot bolt of pain flashed through Minerva's mind and she cursed under her breath. "You win this time, Solomon."
The whirlwind of paper spun with great force and clusters of sheets were separated from Solomon's main body as his booming laughter echoed in Minerva's mind. "200 Soul Coins, undoubled," he gloated.
Minerva brought up her knife with great force and pointed it inches away from the noblewoman's throat, forcing her to cease any further action. A dagger had appeared out of seemingly nowhere in the blonde's right hand – probably concealed up her sleeve. Minerva knew that the first assassin was now free to act as he pleased. She heard the scraping of steel on dirt behind her as he picked up his dagger with his uninjured left hand.
"I have some relevant knowledge for you, Minerva," interrupted Solomon.
"This is a one-time special offer. The only reason I am doing this is because I don't want to risk you dying, so don't even bother bargaining, my girl. 100 Soul Coins."
"That is fine."
Minerva allowed herself to relax a little as the granted knowledge flowed into her mind. She kept her knife directed against the blonde and smiled at her. Behind Minerva's back, the male assassin prepared for a powerful slash. The expected blow never came, however. The trembling edge of an ornate sword was now pressed against his neck. The clear steel reflected a stream of sunlight upon the assassin's face.
"S-s-stop," stammered a man's voice. Minerva recognised him as one of the men who had so willingly helped the false noblewoman earlier.
"You should capitulate," she advised the assassin, eyeing the man's shaking hand. Already there were several minor cuts on the assassin's neck. "He's more dangerous than I am," she added, smiling wryly.
The assassin growled and dropped his dagger, while Minerva stared at the newcomer curiously. It was not likely, but Minerva realized that this mysterious Samaritan could help her in her search. She thought in silence while he continued to hold the sword against the assassin's neck with a very unsteady grip.