Paul sat at dinner across from Maggie Denton, whose deep cut top offered a tantalizing view, with her generous breasts resting on the table. How she kept them clean while eating was beyond him, but he appreciated the effort.
All her nieces and nephews were in attendance around the massive dining table, save one empty chair, third from her left.
“I apologize that my brother couldn’t make it,” she said, nodding at the magnificent wooden chair carved from a single piece of ironwood at the head of the table.
“No problem at all, I just had some easy questions,” Paul said.
“Oh,” She said, doing a seated hop that made her whole body jiggle distractingly. “Questions, I love questions.”
“Really?” Carl asked, his brows furrowed, a piece of meat halfway to his mouth.
“It means a man is showing an interest in me.” she raised a grape to her mouth and used her lips a bit more than necessary to eat it.
“I’m looking for a Denton that uses an Adamantium rapier,” Paul said, watching the eyes of the younger Dentons.
Sure enough, some of the children in their tens glanced at the empty chair Paul consulted his studied knowledge of the Denton family, putting names to faces and eliminating them one by one.
So, the missing Alicia was the rapier-wielder. That made sense.
“Whatever for?” Maggie said with a gentle smile, her shoulders relaxed, gaze fixed on Paul. The woman had done this song and dance before.
“They may be in contact with someone else I’m looking for, actually,” Paul said. “No other reason than that.”
“Really? How did you come to be aware of a Denton with an adamantium rapier?”
Carl sighed and set down his fork, trudging to the entrance of the dining hall and retrieving the cloth-wrapped rapier.
“We found this at the scene of a double homicide. I would very much like to know who was involved, beyond Alicia.”
Her eyebrow twitched.
Paul nodded at Carl, who regretfully handed the sword to one of the Denton children. It was enough for both of them to retire to a life of ease, if they could find a place to sell it without being killed.
“Oh, and will there be any backlash from this double homicide that involved a Denton?” Maggie asked, her eyes narrowing the tiniest bit, calculating profit and loss.
“No. I’ve already taken the liberty of registering it as self-defence and fabricating testimonials. You’ll not even hear of it.” Paul said.
“Oh my, what a fast worker. I should think such direct action should be rewarded.” She said, watching him with a sharp gaze
Paul leaned forward and laced his fingers together. “Pay me if you want to reward me, but let me be blunt. I think I’m chasing someone more important, and certainly more dangerous, than your niece, and she’s seen their face. I would very much like to speak with her.”
“So this truly isn’t about us?” Maggie asked with muted surprise.
“My apologies.” Paul said, not sorry at all to divorce himself from any involvement with the Dentons.
She gave him a calculating look.
“So, what kind of person is more valuable to you than my niece? A direct heir whose parent were killed by cutpurses moonlighting as a crime fighter, perhaps? Is one of the Patriarchs a serial killer?” she asked with a breathy gasp. “I knew it! Old Gunnerson always gave me the creeps.”
Paul watched her silently, his hands clasped together, unwilling to correct her.
“He thinks he’s chasing a Phytomagus.” Carl said derisively, then paled as Paul gave him a stare powerful enough to light shit on fire. Why was Carl frighteningly perceptive at some times and completely stupid at others?
“Children, dinner is over.” Maggie said. As one, the children obediently rose from their seats and filed out of the room.
“Carl, go wait outside and think about what you’ve done.” Paul said, sliding the fat lieutenant’s cup of wine away from him.
“Damn.” Carl stood and trompted outside, leaving the two of them alone. Carl gave a last glance at Maggie’s breasts before heading for the front door.
Ah, boobs and alcohol, the two most powerful I.Q. lowering force in the known universe.
“I’m not familiar with what a Phytomagus is, but it sounds…magical in nature.” Maggie said, leaning forward. “The Dentons would be happy to provide you with whatever assistance you might need to apprehend such a person.”
“Not report them to the empire?” Paul asked, raising a brow.
“There’s no need for an Inquisition to come all the way out here to the outskirts of the empire. The Dentons would be happy to exorcise this particular evil from the face of the Earth on the Emperor’s behalf.”
“Not lock him up and torture the secret of magic out of him?” Paul asked.
Maggie’s smile never slipped.
“We’d be happy to share the bounty, detective Tucker. Your small family could benefit greatly from an alliance by marriage. Maybe we could even find a way for you to keep your garthspawn daughters, were you to have any.”
Her words twisted in his gut like a knife, but he ignored it.
“If even half the things I’ve read are true, you cannot lock this person up against their will.”
“Men design for themselves far more powerful cages than iron and steel within the confines of their own mind.” She said sweetly.
Now he had two choices. Work with the Dentons and get money and power, or refuse to work with them, and possibly wind up a corpse in an alley while Maggie Denton moved heaven and earth to acquire her very own spellcaster in the hopes of elevating her family to the status of royalty.
And he still hadn’t resolved the issue of what to do with the phytomagus when he found him. Beg and plead? Cut off his head without warning? He might save a lot of innocent people from the unfettered slaughter of an Inquisition, but he’d damn himself. What a shitty situation.
“I have a condition.”
“Oh?” she asked, popping a grape into her mouth.
“Please do not search for this man behind my back. People have loose lips and any person you task with this is one more information leak.”
“So I saw.” She said, glancing toward the direction Carl had left. “Is he going to be a problem?” her voice was icy.
“I would prefer him alive. He’s got a better pair of eyes than mine, and can be like a bloodhound when used properly.”
“Huh,” Maggie said, leaning back in her chair, twirling a fork in her hand as she considered.
She stabbed the fork deep into the hardwood table.
“Alright then. Let’s talk specifics.”
Garth decided to head back to the class for the last two hours of the day, just in time to catch P.E., or as they called it, Martial training.
The open air courtyard was filled with soft sand, perfect for taking a dive into. A heavily muscled woman watched stonefaced while teenage boys tried to beat the shit out of each other with practice sticks.
Over in the corner a practice match developed into a scuffle as one nobleson threw his sword at the other and tackled him to the ground, piling in blow after blow to the kid’s face.
Garth glanced over at she-hulk to see if the woman was watching. She was, but what came next gave Garth the chills.
“Nice groundwork, Kyle.”
Well okay then, full contact it is. Hitting people with sharp lengths of wood wasn’t anywhere on Garth’s list of things to strive towards…with the possible exception of playful smacks to bare bottoms, but that was an entirely different wheelhouse.
He would much rather blow things up with his mind and alter the very fabric of reality. Beating people with sticks was boring. Anyone can do that. Gotta find a way to cruise through this without having to punch somebody.
Garth glanced around and spotted a shy girl standing in the corner trying to look inconspicuous.
There we go.
Garth ambled up to her.
“I’m new here, could you show me the forms?” Garth said, intending to spend the rest of the class making ultra-slow practice swings with a timid girl.
She opened her mouth to respond, and her eyes widened, looking behind him a fraction of a second before an iron grip clamped down on his shoulder.
“I’ll teach you,” Kyle said, wiping sweat from his brow with bruised knuckles and a charming grin. He almost didn’t look like he was going to haze the shit out of Garth.
Hmm….what a shitty situation. Garth didn’t want to sandbag it, nor could he afford to humiliate the kid.
The best option was to accept, pretend to lose his patience as Kyle fought circles around him, attack in fake anger, and get the shit beat out of him. Everyone would be totally sure he was a normal teen at that point.
Second best option was to avoid it entirely.
“My apologies, but I think you’re so much better than me that I wouldn’t learn a single thing and that I’d wind up with another concussion.”
“Yeah, I heard about that.” He said with a grin. “Come on, I’ll take it easy on ya.”
“Yeah, old soul, show him the fighting style you learned from a bygone era!” one boy catcalled, making swooshing sounds while doing karate chops.
“Let your past life as a dashing swordsman rise to the surface!”
Garth realized he had no choice as the rest of the class joined in at mocking him.
Well, guess I better get this over with.
At least his plan for having them not take him seriously was working.
Kyle walked him out to a corner of the practice yard.
“So I assume you’ve never wielded a sword before, seeing as you though you were just another commoner until recently.” Kyle said.
“That about sums it up.”
“This is the pommel, holds the hilt on with a screw in non-wooden swords. Some people forget to pay attention to the stuf holding their sword together and die when the handle slips off because of metal fatigue.”
Holy crap, is this an actual lesson? Garth thought, ratcheting up his opinion of Kyle by a few notches.
“This is the hilt. Try not to hold the sword too tight, or it’ll cramp your hand and make your grip brittle.”
“The guard, so you don’t lose your fingers.” He glanced up at Garth “You’d be surprised how often that happens even with the guard.”
Another reason to hate swordfighting.
“The fuller, to reduce weight, the edge, and the point. I’m fairly sure you can figure out what those are for.”
He straightened and adopted a stance. “There are a few basic things that make an excellent swordsman. A quick wit, a strong body, lots of practice, and a complete lack of compassion for your fellow man.”
“I get that. Hard to murder people creatively if you care about hurting them.” Garth said nodding.
Kyle grinned. “Exactly. Now I’ll show you the difference parrying left and right, blocking and what to do after. Now stab at me, very slowly.
Garth shrugged, picked up the sword and slowly extended it toward Kyle’s stomach.
Kyle, in the meantime, moved like molasses as he slowly stepped forward, using his left hand on the side of the blade for extra stability as he brushed Garth’s aside. Garth watched as Kyle’s elbow sailed slowly into his face, all part of the same movement.
Garth obligingly toppled backward into the sand. Another thing I hate about swordmanship, is how much regular tackling and punching is involved.
“You didn’t need to go that far,” Kyle said, chuckling as he pulled Garth to his feet. “And if the enemy has a helmet on or a wicked bite, it might be a better idea to turn it into a shoulder check. Anything you can do to put them on their back gives you a huge advantage.”
“I see.” Garth said, nodding.
“Now you do what I just did.”
They spent a few minutes slowly working through the basics. Garth knew they had names, but he organized them under cheap moves, dirty tricks, nut shots, and strikes banned by the MMA.
Which made him eager to never fight a guy with a sword who knew what he was doing.
“So you’re a Bergstrom, huh?” Kyle said as they slowly struck at each other.
Here it comes.
“I guess I am.” Garth said.
“You’re in an interesting position, being the sole successor to the family. My family, well, it’s a madhouse right now. You still have to worry about people killing you, just not your own brothers and sisters.”
“There is that.” Garth said sarcastically.
Kyle smirked. “There’s one thing you might be overlooking. Since you’re the only heir, you don’t have to worry about how to get the patriarchy, that part’s already taken care of. Since you’re a shoe-in, you can start thinking about what you’re going to do with it. Since people know you’ll be the next Patriarch of the Bergstrom family, you can make alliances that will blossom as you ascend the throne.”
“Ah, and this is where you offer one of these alliances.” Garth said, slowly shoulder checking Kyle.
“Well, yeah.’ Kyle said with a shy grin. “You must not be aware, but most of your successors were killed by my family. I got your big brother Juka, actually. He had this girl he was sweet on who worked in the Rob’aGob tavern…”
Icy fingers ran down Garth’s spine as he heard a teenage boy brag about murdering his brother.
“Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently, and I think my family’s policy of wiping out your family is a bit extreme. If I were patriarch, I would rather have your family as a friend. I’d rather have you as a friend.”
“Seems odd to lead with ‘I killed your brother’.”
“You would’ve found out eventually, I don’t want you thinking I was a liar, and besides, you didn’t even know him. You were snatched away from your mother to be the puppet of the next generation of Chairs.
“Explain the chair system.” Garth said, slowly blocking a strike.
“Ah right, you just got thrust into this mess. Well, in a normal Succession – yours isn’t normal, by the way – every son who thinks they have a chance at attaining the patriarchy tosses their hat in the ring in the first few weeks, then their sisters choose who they want to back, and in what order. They then work to maximize the chances that particular son will be chosen as the successor.”
“As the sons are forced out of the race or eliminated, the sisters will reshuffle, choosing sides, until the last son remains, and becomes the new patriarch, at which point, the sisters are ranked by that son, based on the amount of support they received.
“And the person who backed him first becomes first chair.” Garth said.
“Traditionally, yes. First chair has as much power as the patriarch and more freedom to wield it. They run the family, and delegate responsibilities to the second, third and so on.”
“Huh, so who’s going to be my first chair?” Garth asked.
“I don’t know, maybe watch your sisters for a while, see which one leads the pack, so to speak.”
What an odd system. Every family run by a brother/sister duo.
“So where does your mother come into all this?” Garth asked.
“My mother was a Garthspawn. I don’t know which of my father’s stable she was, but I do have an idea.”
“Stable?” Garth demanded, the wood squeaking under his grip
“All noble children are born from a stable of Garthspawn kept by the house. Who wouldn’t want plenty of healthy heirs to run the family businesses?” He paused and considered a moment. “That’s one thing for you to look forward to. I am too.”
“Yeah. That sounds great.” Garth gritted through his teeth. Garth had quipped about the systematic rape of his granddaughters to the principal, but he hadn’t been aware of the full scope of the problem until now, and it was a lot more systematic, and a lot more rapey than he’d thought.
That and every single noble was a descendant of his.
His grandchildren were raping his other grandchildren.
You know what, not gonna care about that anymore. Thirty-two goddamn generations was far too diluted to treat each and every one of them like his children. Except the Garthspawn seemed to have some kind of dominant trait that linked back to him and his daughters.
Those are the ones that are suffering, those are the ones that need my help.
That and the kids caught in lethal family squabbles.
And the starving peons who had most likely been born from a garthspawn at some point.
Okay so there’s a lot of people I could help, but we’ll keep the focus narrow for now.
“So now you’ve heard about the way things are, what do you say to giving me a hand?” Kyle asked. “If I become the patriarch, our two families could benefit together…”
“Or if you prefer, I can revert to our old way of thinking and kill you right here,” Kyle said, glancing to where the teacher was paying attention to something else all the way across the practice yard.
“I could snap your neck and be done with it before the instructor could do a damn thing.”
“No,” Garth said, smouldering with anger. “You couldn’t.”