Need to sit down and have a think, Garth thought, nearly sitting on the street before reconsidering and moving to a tavern. He couldn’t get his new noble-quality tailored threads dirty on the first day of owning them.
Remind me to make microscopic cleaning plant.
Garth sat in the tavern, and ordered a beer while he pondered his next move.
According to the men he’d beaten to near death, they worked for a fellow named George, and managed some small-time shit, mostly extortion, drug smuggling, and prostitution, mixed with a little bit of theft.
Garth had been the target of that, actually. It hadn’t turned out so great for them.
This George fellow wasn’t the top of the ladder, couldn’t be. He must have a boss, and that guy must have a boss.
And there was no way the nobility didn’t get their fingers in the crime pie at some point.
So what are we thinking, Garth thought as the wench delivered his beer. Keep tugging on strings until we make our way to the top of the seedy underworld…and then what?
He idly smacked her generous rear and leaned out of the way of the counterattack before the girl stalked away in a huff.
Let’s make a list.
- Garth needed Heartstones. That was the foundation of anything he intended to do.
- He needed a workshop where he could create enchantments to augment himself and refine heartstones from monsters, so he could have heartstones that were off the books in the quantity he would need.
- He needed social power. A support structure to render him immune from attack and make him ‘official’
- He needed to use that status to justifiably conquer Earth.
- Then the Sphere,
- Then the Inner Spheres.
- Then kill the guy who ruined his dream city.
And he needed to do most of that stuff without using plant-based magic in public, at least until he rewrote history too.
To condense, he needed a noble title for parts one and three, and a lot of money for part two. The rest of them involved a lot of time and effort.
Maybe… make his own noble family? Say he got fifty people ripped via Heartstone enhancement, that was the equivalent of a noble family’s standing army right there. They’d probably be hesitant to attack him.
Doesn’t make me official, though. And I need the noble access for the materials in the first place.
Gah, Garth clutched his head. It was such an annoying, circular problem. Can’t have the stuff because you’re not noble, can’t be noble because you don’t have the stuff.
A lot like the twenty-first century, actually. Nice to know some things never change.
“Hey, Barb, long time no see,” A greasy man with thick leather clothes said as he sauntered up to the countertop.
“George,” Said the matronly woman behind the bar, “I hear all your goons are laid up.”
Oops, time to go, Garth thought, chugging the last of his beer and standing up. Right on time. If the man’s thugs couldn’t demand payment, George would have to do it himself, so Garth had waited at one of the places he extorted.
“I’m here, Aint I?” George said with a grin. He was missing a couple teeth. “Where’s the money you owe me?”
“Owe you? For protection from your goons?” she asked. “They’re gone and I could snap you in half myself.”
“You think so?” he asked, pulling out a wicked curved blade with a gap-toothed smile.
“Maybe I follow one of your patrons home and get my money that way, or better yet, start a fire when you’re tucked into your beds…There are plenty of ways for me to get what’s mine.”
This is lovely and all, but… Garth tapped the guy on the shoulder.
“The hell do you want!” His eyes flickered up and down Garth’s snazzy new vest embroidered with the colors of Beladia. “…Milord.”
Garth weaved mana into the man’s brain.
George’s eyes dilated as the spell took hold. The spell was a simple one that would wrench the man’s feelings in a positive direction whenever he thought of Garth. That included looking at him, of course. The spell would only last about an hour at Garth’s current meager abilities, but it was plenty for now.
“I’m looking for a business opportunity, and was hoping to speak to you in private.” Garth said with his most teenage affectation.
George glanced at Barb, who was watching the two of them in confusion.
“It’s worth a lot more than she is.” Garth said.
“Sure, kid,” George said with a grin, putting his knife away. He threw an arm over Garth’s shoulder and steered him outside the tavern.
Garth endured the man’s breath until they had made their way to a private alley. There, he put the man to sleep and laced him with the most powerful permanent Conditioning spells he could muster.
He couldn’t give the man a heart attack like he could in his prime, but he’d be slightly nervous every time he did something Garth didn’t like, and slightly joyful everytime he did something Garth approved of.
Time to make and obedient worker drone.
It was a fairly long list, and Garth worked at it for a few hours, writing down his design on a flow sheet scrawled on the wall to keep his operant conditioning straight. He didn’t try to make George into a polite, law abiding citizen like with Tyler.
He was making a criminal Work-a-holic.
He would feel euphoric when he was out making money, and nervous and ill at ease when resting on his laurels. Can’t run a criminal empire without elbow grease. Why not someone else’s?
Most importantly, he would feel anxious any time he disobeyed Garth. After a few months, the conditioning spells would fade, and Garth would get to see whether the results were permanent.
Science was fun.
Once he was done tweaking the web of spells, Garth erased the flow chart on the wall, reapplied the Charm spell, and woke George up.
“Oh, what happened?” George said, allowing Garth to pull him to his feet.
“I think someone hit you on the back of the head as we were making our way to the alley. You got all loopy.”
“Oh, yeah, no wonder,” George said, holding his head. “I’ve got an army marching through my head.”
“Yeah, it’ll do that,” Garth said with a shrug. “Should pass.”
“So…What did you want, gob?”
“I’m looking for a job.” Garth said. “My family’s fallen on hard times, and I was hoping to make some extra cash to support them.”
George chuckled and began snorting.
“No way, having a Nobleson working with me is like signing my own death warrant. You’re poisonous, kid.”
Having rebuffed Garth, the punitive measures in the spell kicked in, causing George to get anxious. The man started peering over his shoulder.
“Matter of fact, I shouldn’t even be talking with you.”
Damnit, garth thought. The Conditioning spells weren’t a precise art yet. Gotta focus on positive reinforcement. He needed to get the man saying yes.
“You like making money, right?” Garth asked.
“Yeah, I like money,” George said, then began to grin as his previous nerves were washed away by agreeing with Garth.
Eventually he would start agreeing with Garth subconsciously, but only when his subconscious had enough time to figure out the pattern.
“And nobles have a lot of money.”
“All the money,” George said, spitting on the ground.
“So what if you had someone who could put you in contact with them? I mean, you run the streets, right?”
“It’s above me, gob, I can’t do it.” George said, before he once again got a hunted look, being punished for denying Garth.
“Well,” Garth said, putting the hook out there. “If you can’t help me, do you know someone who can?”
*** Alicia Denton***
Alicia sat at her aunt’s right hand side as the boring, dry politics of the city were hashed out by the patriarchs of each family.
Her aunt nodded as Alicia’s father delivered her speech, the man long sense versed in public presentation and politics, doing an excellent job of pretending their ideas were his own.
Alicia watched and listened carefully, trying to peel away the veneer of calm that each of the patriarchs maintained. Little gestures, unconscious nervous behavior, the way their eyes looked, whether they tapped their feet. She was looking for the tells that would let her guess which horse would win.
Horses, they called them.
The Board of each family, consisting of the sisters of the current Patriarch, looked down upon the men seated in an oval in the center of the room, chasing each other’s tails like horses.
The Council of Santo Descanso was composed of nine noble families, Nine men and the forty-six women who advised them and ran their businesses. While the Patriarch had the final say in theory, all his assets were managed by his sisters, so a delicate balance was maintained between the puppet and the puppeteers.
“Next order of business, a patrol of one hundred men was destroyed by a Yenner attack. A fund must be put forth to replace the men and more importantly, control the Yenner population across the Western range of our city.”
“Let the Bergstrom family pay for it,” her father said. “They are the ones who are most heavily invested in farming to the west. It’s their responsibility to keep their people safe.”
“And I suppose if milord’s lands in the east were attacked, we should wait for you to sort it out?” The Bergstrom representative asked pointedly.
The man was pale and sweating, quieter than he usually was. Alicia smiled and waited for them to tear him apart. The farm-lord hadn’t deserved a seat on the council for years, and this might just be the push they needed to unseat him for a branch family of the Denton’s.
“It’s not an attack, it’s insects,” her father said with a sneer. “We shouldn’t be burdened with cleaning up your land when you were too stingy to properly maintain it.”
“I share a similar stance,” the fat, balding, patriarch of the Ford house said. “With one important caveat. The patrol belonged to the city, and while Bergstrom was responsible for the safety of his citizens, the safety of those men was their own responsibility. I believe the burden of replacement should fall on all of our shoulders squarely. As a matter of fact, I have a daughter who displays quite the martial prowess who would be keen on joining the Imperial Legion as a captain.”
“And there it is, trying to get your dirty paws on the city’s military again.” A fourth patriarch said with a sneer.
The scene devolved into a shouting match, and Alicia mentally checked out, her mind returning to her own battle for power. Now that Father wasn’t producing any more heirs, the battle between the siblings for control had begun in earnest.
Just this year, two of her brothers had died, presumably killed by agents of her sisters.
Alicia had chosen to back her brother James, a clever boy who had a practiced air of averageness. He hardly ever rose to the forefront of their father’s attention, but he never failed either. Solid, dependable, and most importantly, able to keep his head down while his more bloodthirsty brothers and sisters were picking each other off. Once a few more of her brothers died, her other sisters would begin to line up behind her, but she would always be first.
All he needed was someone smarter than him willing to bend the rules. No one cared how you won the patriarchy, only that you did. Her Aunt had told them the story of seducing the Chief of police, in excruciating detail, almost every night before bed. She hadn’t ever said it directly, but Alicia had done research, and the night she spoke of with such fondness was the same night more than half of Father’s brothers died in a fire.
Aunt Maggie was the one in charge, now, because she did whatever it took.
The race was still early, though, so Alicia was simply building money and connections, amassing a great deal of both through her clever method of rigging the scales of the dungeon’s tax office.
Why pay people to carry adamantium crystals in their ass when you could inflate the tax without anyone knowing and keep the difference? The only link in the chain was a clerk in the office who she paid well to keep his mouth shut and mail her the raw profits.
She pictured her brother and his supporters well-armed, and well supported by a seemingly endless well of cash.
When the other frontrunners discovered her brother’s hidden depths, it would be too late.
When the political theatre was done, the men and women filed out through separate entrances. The board members staring daggers at each other while the patriarchs walked stiffly to their individual carriages.
Alicia rode in the carriage with her aunt and father on the way home. He peeled himself out of his jacket with a sigh and wiped sweat from his face with a cold, wet cloth. He and her Aunt talked politics as she listened.
When they returned to the mansion, Alicia said her goodbyes to her Aunt Maggie, then traversed the Labyrinthine halls of the Denton Mansion, seeking out her brother’s room, where he’d be hard at work memorizing law and great speeches of the past, as per her coaching.
“James,” she said when she arrived at his door, “It’s Alicia. Tell me you’re decent.” Nobody wanted to walk in on their brother with a chambermaid or worse.
After a few seconds of silence, she shrugged. “You’ve been warned.”
She opened the door.
On the bed, half turned over, flattened into the silk sheets by rigor mortis, was her unremarkable brother, a massive stain of brown around his neck.
She closed the door.
“Well, shit.” So much for that angle. Alicia stumbled away and leaned against the walls of the hallway as she considered her next move.
Her second brother, Kyle, walked down the hall, wrapped in a towel, drying off his hair.
“Sweet sister, you look as if you’d seen a ghost,” he said with a malicious grin. “Have you visited James yet? I’m sure his company will cheer you up.”
Alicia tilted her head to stare at the current frontrunner.
“You missed a spot.” She said, pointing behind her ear.
He paused a moment to guiltily touch the side of his head, bringing back nothing, but assuring Alicia that he had done the deed himself.
“Clever.” He said, reading her expression. “Are you sure you don’t want to support me? There’re still positions open on my board for someone like you.”
“If you give me first chair.” Alicia said.
Kyle clicked his tongue. “That position has already been promised to Benedette, Can I interest you in dishwashing, or perhaps Human Relations?”
“Eat a dick Kyle. I’ll be the first chair one way or another.” Alicia pushed herself to her feet and began walking away, her heart simmering with rage.
Kyle caught her arm as she passed him. He leaned close to whisper in her ear.
“Careful sister. It might be against the rules to strike out at you, but the rules won’t mean much to you after you’re dead. Keep pushing and I’ll treat you like any of my other brothers.”
Alicia bit him. Hard.
“Agh, fuck!” Kyle shouted, tearing his bloody ear away from her mouth.
“Something to remember me by,” Alicia said before running for all she was worth.
She needed a new brother to back, but all the acceptable ones had long since been taken by another sister, who would receive the first chair instead of her.
So she needed to back an unacceptable one.
Normally, only a handful of brothers die in the succession, and most of the rest are pushed out of the running peacefully, but Kyle had forced her into a situation where she would have to kill every brother between her and the first chair.
So be it.
Alicia sprinted down the hall, to where her second youngest brother’s room was. When she entered the room, the eight-year old was busily recreating the battle of Detroit with tiny wooden soldiers.
“Hi Alicia,” he said absentmindedly as she entered.
“Hi Thomas,” she said, sitting crosslegged beside him.
“How would you like to have a real army?”