Chapter II – Scion of Alte
Minerva and the nervous young man stood guard over the two assassins, waiting for the city guards to arrive. Minerva considered initiating some conversation with him once or twice, but he had such an intense look of concentration on his face that she thought better of it. Despite his best efforts, it was clear that he did not have a steady grip on his sword, and Minerva had a strong suspicion that she might shock him into accidentally cutting off the assassin's head. She instead settled for examining his appearance in hopes of learning more about him.
The first thing that had stood out to her was the quality of his attire. He wore a light grey waistcoat which was possibly made of satin or some other luxurious material, judging from the gloss and sleekness of the fabric. Minerva also noticed a sizeable red jewel on his left ring finger. Minerva rarely bothered herself over clothing and jewellery, but she was aware that those items must have cost quite a princely sum. His black trousers were immaculate, with no discernible wrinkles, and his shoes shone with a gleam that was evidently the result of much hard work.
That hard work, Minerva decided, was unlikely to have originated from the young man himself. His slack shoulders and slightly hunched back, sickly pale skin, and thin, delicate hands made it impossible for her to imagine him as having engaged in any sort of significant physical activity. To sum it up, he was clearly either a noble or belonged to a rich merchant family, and had led a privileged life.
"I could tell you about that man, you know. It won't cost much," Solomon said.
"Forget it. I'm not going to waste any Soul Coins on information that I can get from him directly. You must be quite bored to make such a pointless offer, Solomon," Minerva replied.
The tornado of paper ascended for a bit before falling back to its original position. Even after so many years of partnership, Minerva was not sure if this gesture was Solomon's equivalent of a nod or a shrug.
"There is nothing else occupying us right now, in any case. It doesn't hurt to try, now does it?"
"I suppose not."
It did not take the guards much longer to arrive. Two men in leather armour who were carrying shields and short swords made their way through the crowd that had gathered.
"What's going on here? Heard there's been a fight, and now I see the two of you acting like executioners," one of the guards rumbled through his thick, dark beard. His gaze passed over the two of them, and Minerva noted that his eyes had paused briefly on the young man's ring.
"T-These two v-villains a-attacked this l-lady here. I-I-I helped h-her, but I d-d-don't know w-what happened e-exactly," the twitchy young man said defiantly, sticking out his rather weak chin.
"And who might you be?" the other guard asked as he and his partner rounded on Minerva. He was clean-shaven and sounded much younger than his partner.
"I'm Minerva Vallering, a scholar from Vangrad. I'm here to do some research on the djinn. For some reason that I am not aware of, I was attacked by these two assassins. Thankfully, this kind man saved me from danger." She was vaguely aware that the nervous man was now gawking at her, but thought nothing of it.
"How did you end up in this situation, then? I'm not trying to be contrary, you understand, but it looks like you attacked them rather than the other way round."
"I managed to notice the first assassin's attack and subdued him. I was then surprised by a second assassin, this woman" Minerva said, gesturing towards the lady in question. "Luckily, I was saved thanks to this man's timely intervention."
"Y-y-yes, that was w-w-what h-h-happened," the young man agreed, a big smile spreading across his face.
The two guards exchanged glances. "Pardon me if I don't quite believe that story, missus. You're a scholar, you say? I can't imagine how an ordinary scholar would be able to notice an assassin attacking her. Our scholars don't carry knives around either, as a rule."
Minerva was spared the trouble of replying by the male assassin, who slowly raised his hand into the air. As he did so, fresh streams of blood emerged from the wound on his wrist and slid down his forearm.
"I know I'm a criminal, but I'm bleeding to death here and could do with some treatment. It'd be better if you kept me alive for questioning too, isn't it?" The assassin still wore an easy smile on his face despite the dire situation that he was in.
"Well, I suppose you're right. Rather cheery for someone who's about to be thrown into jail, aren't you?" the bearded guard asked gruffly.
"No point in getting myself down, after all," the assassin replied with a shrug.
The guard grunted and pointed his short sword at the assassin. "Forget it. Let's go, Walter," he said, jerking his head at his partner. The other guard nodded and did the same with the female assassin. The two guards duly led the assassins away and left the young man and Minerva on their own. The young man let loose a huge sigh of relief and, after many tries, successfully sheathed his longsword with shaking hands.
Minerva replaced her own weapon and asked him, "You're not experienced with using weapons, are you?"
"O-oh! N-n-no, indeed, I-I-I am not. I-I-I don't know w-w-what I w-w-would have d-done, if they h-h-had put up any re-resistance," he said, gulping.
Minerva closed her eyes, trying her best to ignore his speech impediment.
"That was very brave of you. Thank you very much."
"N-n-not at a-a-all. I on-on-on-only did w-what was r-r-right," he replied, shaking his head fiercely.
Minerva placed a finger on her chin. "Come to think of it, I still don't know who you are. Would you be so kind as to give me your name?"
"O-of course. I am E-Edward George A-Alte. My f-f-family owns S-S-Scarlet S-Stone Mine, n-near t-this city. W-we also s-s-sell the precious stones that a-a-are mined. Y-you a-are c-called Mi-Mi-Mi-Minerva V-Vallering, aren't you?" he said.
"Yes. Pleased to meet you," Minerva said politely. She was glad to see that her expectations had not been disappointed. Edward indeed belonged to a family with much clout, and a merchant family at that.
She waited for Edward to continue the conversation, but he seemed to be struggling to say what he wanted to say next. He opened and closed his mouth several times, occasionally turning his head left and right.
After a few moments of this, Minerva frowned and asked, "Is something the matter?"
"N-n-n-no! W-well...T-t-there is something t-t-that I want t-to a-a-a-ask y-you."
"Please, feel free to do so."
"Y-y-you are a c-c-c-c-contractor, aren't you?"
She hesitated for a moment. No, there was no point in hiding it, after all.
"Yes, I am. I try my best not to make it obvious, but I suppose it cannot be avoided after what just happened. The guards probably suspect as much, and I expect the assassin will confirm it for them later. Is there something you would like to ask of me, as a contractor?"
"Y-yes. I w-w-want to k-k-know if there i-is any way of be-becoming a c-c-c-c-contractor. I-I-I have h-heard that i-it must be i-i-i-impossible, and y-y-yet..."
Minerva frowned. This was one of the questions that she received the most as a scholar who specialized in studying the djinn.
"I am afraid that you are right. It is not possible to become a contractor simply because one wishes to do so. There has been much research conducted on the subject, but the conclusion is invariably the same - encountering a djinn is a matter of chance and nothing more."
Edward pressed his lips together in dismay. "I-I-I can't g-g-give up so easily. Please t-tell me m-m-more."
Minerva took a deep breath. This was her chance. "I can do so, but I have something to ask of you as well. I know it is presumptuous of me to do this, but I am looking for a certain person - the rumoured 'Dual Contractor'. I would be very grateful if you could tell me anything at all about him."
"I a-am fine w-with a-an e-exchange of information. That a-also suits m-m-me w-well," Edward replied with a much brighter expression. "P-p-please, f-f-follow me."
Minerva sat in an exquisitely carved mahogany chair, well-aware that her well-worn green tunic and rough cotton shorts, made her seem wholly out of place in these surroundings. She was currently in the drawing room of Alte Manor, accompanied by Edward. Rose-colored velvet curtains obscured the windows, allowing only a soft and pleasant glow of sunlight to enter the room. Solomon was occupying the space next to her, even if no one else could see him. The servants had given her a few curious looks as she entered, and she had a dark suspicion that they had entirely the wrong idea as to what her purpose in the manor was.
"W-well then. Shall we b-begin?" Edward asked. He was seated very straight in the chair opposite Minerva and staring at her purposefully, but his eyes were not as wide as they were previously and his breathing was much calmer now.
"I suppose so," answered Minerva. "But, if you will pardon me for asking, I'm curious to know why you seek a djinn so desperately." She interlaced her fingers and regarded him doubtfully . "Different types of djinn have different abilities, you see. Even if there was a way to call a djinn to this world, it may not suit your needs, especially if you have a specific purpose in mind,"
"I-I do not have any s-such specific purpose in m-mind," Edward replied, shaking his head. "If I did, I c-could have tried t-to hire a contractor who d-did have the necessary abilities."
Minerva nodded and waited patiently for him to elaborate further.
"T-the best way to p-put it would be to s-say that I need s-strength. Strength and a-authority."
Minerva found herself unwittingly drawn into Edward's eyes as he said that. There had been an unexpected flash of steel and resolve within those dark blue pupils. It did not last long, but it had been there all the same.
"Why?" she breathed.
"R-right now, my f-father is handling all the b-business that we c-conduct. But he's g-growing o-old. Everyone k-knows that. His health h-has been failing s-slowly. A-and I-I am the eldest s-son!" He pointed towards himself and smiled ironically.
"S-someone as p-p-p-pathetic as myself w-will ruin the f-f-family business. I-I-I-I won't stand for i-i-it! I t-t-tried t-to convince my f-f-father to let my s-s-sister t-take over, but a f-f-female has her own p-problems. A-and so, it i-is up to m-m-m-me. My s-sister is f-far more competent t-than I am, and s-s-she can h-help. But I m-must make many of t-t-t-the n-n-negotiations myself. A-a-a-and I have this a-accursed st-st-st-st-stutter. I c-can't d-d-do it!"
His final statement came out as a bellow and with so much force that Minerva would never have expected it from such a physically frail man. She sat in stunned silence as Edward panted fiercely and sought to regain his breath.
"B-but if I become a c-contractor, e-e-everything is d-different," he continued after calming down. "There will be a r-reason to r-respect me. E-even if I have to i-inherit, it will not be as d-disastrous a-as it is n-now. T-that's why I h-have to try. A-any r-ray of hope w-will do f-for me, at this point."
Minerva knew that he was quite right. Merchant-contractors were always viewed with respect, as their negotiating skills were doubly useful for both of their specializations. It was no coincidence that the chief governors of many major cities, the Grand Merchants, were almost always merchant-contractors. History had never been Minerva's area of interest, but it was common knowledge that Grand Merchants that were not merchant-contractors usually ended up ousted from their post.
"Very well. I understand your situation. I will tell you what I know, but let me warn you - what you hope for is, to the best of my knowledge, impossible."
Edward nodded stubbornly.
"That boy isn't ordinary," Solomon commented.
"Indeed? I'm surprised to hear you give such information free of charge," Minerva thought.
"It just slipped out. Besides, you had more or less the same feeling as well," Solomon grunted irritably.
Minerva smiled slightly. It was rare for Solomon to put in a good word for anyone. Edward's halting demeanour had not been encouraging initially, but perhaps he really did have information on the 'Dual Contractor' and could help her in moving closer towards her goal.
But before that, she had to keep up her end of the bargain. She took a deep breath before speaking.
"Allow me to begin, then…"