As more days passed, I was thankful that the whole situation wasn’t entirely out of my hands.
I had orchestrated the vague happenings that led us to where Crossroads now sat politically, with the faceless bigwigs simultaneously taking advantage of the situation to further their own political agendas, and also afraid that they were next. There were ideas on who had done it, and why, but when you were working with assassins good enough to kill a high-ranking merchant with clear ties to the Officials, then you weren’t going to get answers to easily.
The Officials had sent a high-ranking officer to the Skinned Lizard while seeking Valeri, who had continued to stay as a resident in one of the many rooms that the inn had open. It was clear enough that they were suspicious of her activity around that time, but with the story that she had prepared herself, just about as ironclad as you could make it, they really had nothing to work with.
It also didn’t hurt that Valeri was the heir apparent, and there was no one who had the legal merit to question it. Valeri was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the Ephars family and the empire that her father had built. There wasn’t much you could question about the woman when she had the money on hand to crush your life in any way she so pleased.
However, I wasn’t just focusing on Valeri while she wallowed in her depression. That would be an egregious waste of time. Instead, I spent my time in keeping up with old friends. Two sets of old friends, to be exact.
Gehne and Lauka, and the flamboyant and powerful Lucae Milna and his cohort of connections.
Gehne wasn’t necessarily aware of Lauka’s existence, but I had changed that after the cogs began to turn. There was no time to allow them to form a true bond of any sort, something that I’d had to have cultivated weeks before in lieu of other important things. I decided to trust them both with a degree of professionalism, that they would work together smoothly.
Lucae Milna was a different beast altogether. We had only truly had one meeting, one that had ended with me asking about the Shadow Walkers, that had then led me to find more about them from Illias Traniel, the man who I’d effectively made into my own pawn. He was more from Valeri’s world, but she was out of commission for at least a little while, so he was quickly becoming my best option.
I almost didn’t want to drag Lucae into this, nor those that he surrounded himself with, but it was important that I did. He might hide himself and the little community he’d cultivated away in his estate, but the power that he held in the public’s eyes was almost unrivalled in comparison to the other big wigs of his size. The Milna family, while not economically as powerful as the Ephars family, were significantly more so politically. This was something that Jitah Ephars was clearly trying to change with his daughter.
I had sent Gehne to Lauka’s home, notifying the other woman that she’d need to brief her on the current tensions in Shed’s gang. They’d need to actually start planning what they were going to do and how they were going to do it, then after that I would monitor their decisions and see what else could be done. I wasn’t as well versed in the inner workings of a gang as they both were, with the higher-class politics making more inherent sense to me.
Either way, I’m almost entirely certain that Lucae was not expecting to have a servant be sent by the doorman to tell him that one Maximilian Avenforth had appeared at his grandiose door in the mid-morning. I had been placed inside of a well-furnished waiting room in the meantime and when the door had swung open to reveal a tamely dressed Lucae, though not without colourful flair, the shocked expression on his face was worth the trip alone.
“Well, I never!” The man exclaimed exuberantly, straightening out the suit which was closer to the current fashion than my own, though I could see some distinct similarities between my own suit design and his, “The ghost that had disappeared as quickly as he had appeared within my own home, no less! I believe that there are quite a few noblewomen asking after you.” He winked a hazel eye gratuitously, though I could feel the relief that laid under the surface.
“You can’t get rid of me so easily, Lucae.” I snarked, grinning at the man as he pulled me from the seat, and gave me a quick hug before leading me out of the room and down a short hallway to a set of double doors which opened into what I imagine is his personal study.
“Well, your sudden disappearance had me worried, I won’t lie.” He said, his voice shifting to become instantly more serious as the door to his study closed, “It had me thinking you’d found yourself in a situation you couldn’t handle on my information.”
“I’ll have to assure you that there aren’t many situations I can’t handle, Lucae.” He gestured me to a comfortable chair while he rounded the desk and sat in his own, chuckling lightly against his more serious tone.
“I’m coming to believe you, Maximilian. Especially assuming that you’ve been successful in your investigation?” I grinned, contrasting myself with his seriousness, trying to give the man an idea of how little danger I was actually in.
“More than successful, Lucae. I managed to… make some connections.” I smiled slyly as the man’s face went sheet white, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed the information heavily.
“You talked with one? A Shadow Walker?” He said incredulously, some doubt even worming its way into his mind. The idea was so incomprehensible that he couldn’t even fathom it being a reality.
“Not just talked, Lucae.” I said lightly, and then I set back and watched the show begin.
The thing about having an empathic ability on par with my own was that you could almost see someone thinking. Not their exact thoughts, but a surprising amount of emotion was linked with words and ideas inextricably, and ‘thinking coldly’ was a skill that very few cared to develop and was more likely to be a coincidence that they were capable of it rather than trained in it.
As such, Lucae’s emotional sphere lit up like a heat map. The emotions almost jumped out at me like experiences, colours, smells, and sounds, a facet of my empathy that I had neglected because of the sheer time investment that I’d need to train in it. The man in front of me was far, far more intelligent than he even seemed to give himself credit for, and I was just waiting for the words to come out of his mouth that would confirm his brilliance.
“Jitah Ephars.” He said, and immediately I felt a wave of gratification flood over me as my hunch proved itself correct, “You were behind that, you had him assassinated.”
“So close, yet so far. But for now, that is more than enough to prove to me that you’re important here, Lucae.” I said softly, losing the snark and exchanging it for a soft smile. Lucae looked at me with a refreshed view, and while it definitely wasn’t fearful, it also wasn’t warm and happy. Such was the way of the revolution, I suppose.
“You’re wrapping me up in this plan of yours no matter what I say, aren’t you?” He whispered defeatedly, leaning back in his chair when I nodded in the affirmative.
“Unfortunately.” I apologised, expression heavy with a sad smile, “But, I don’t think you’ll be so against the idea of wresting power from those that sit atop Crossroad’s political strata.”
“To what end?” He responded, his voice more analytical than I’d ever hear before, a direct view of his most intelligent side in his well-taken-care-of complexion.
“Simple, to provide those who live within Crossroads a proper place of security and comfort, without fear of falling to the same depravities that Vahla fell to or being subsumed by the banner of the Sun God to the north.” I shrugged, leaving it at that. The motive was just that, simple and understandable. It was just something that didn’t lend itself to easy execution.
“You speak a big game, Maximilian, and I’m starting to think that wagering on your success is a good bet.” He said, his voice dangerously cutthroat, just like you’d expect from the son of one of the most politically powerful men in Crossroads. I tilted my head to the side, feigning thought for a moment in an attempt to play the game.
“I do, and I am more than confident in my own wager, Lucae. What is really more important here…” I paused for effect, looking the man in the eye with a grin, “is whether you’re willing to compete with your father and overthrow him to begin a new age in the political elite of Crossroads.”
The silence hung between us for a good minute, the other man’s mind a whirr of emotion and calculation. I let it all happen, absolutely confident in the man’s answer, and I was only confirmed in my confidence when a small smile began to grow exponentially on the usually flamboyant man’s face. It was an expression of daring and cunning, a predator’s smile.
“It seems that I’ll be paying my dear old dad a visit. Now, tell me, what exactly are you planning, dear?”
I grinned to match the man, wolfish and filled to the brim with an amusement you could only truly share with someone else just as cheeky as yourself.
“Oh, nothing that special…”
It was in the darkness of night that Rethi managed to get both himself and his girlfriend home to the Skinned Lizard. The inn had long since quieted down to nothing, leaving the empty building open for them to enter, despite both of them still wearing the masks they donned to work in.
They’d returned to work shortly after that incident, continuing through the streets to heal those that needed it. And boy did they need it. Alena had seen a massive increase in the sheer amount of Reptilia that needed to be seen, with anything from an injury from a thrown stone, to a blade wound. It was frankly terrifying to see how quickly the tenuous peace had devolved and unravelled into whatever it currently was.
The really terrifying thing, however, was the implications for this. Rethi had no doubt that Max had been involved with what was happening, one way or another. Rethi was hardly willing to question Max’s goals and plans, but when the effect of whatever he was doing was so apparent to him, it made it difficult to even comprehend what would be worth this much suffering.
Rethi, while a smart kid, was smart enough to know that even if Maximilian were to sit down and explain his every idea he would still be confused and require it to be explained many times over. Simply put, Rethi’s understanding of grand scale social politics was minimal at best, and he didn’t quite have the innate gift for it that Maximilian seemed to hold.
But it was hard to ignore when things right in front of you were starkly changed by what he knew to be his master’s actions, or as close to them as they could be.
Alena murmured something, trudging her way to their bed while hiding away the mask in her cloak. Rethi watched her go, somewhat bitterly. He was watching the world affect her so much more now, and it was hard to watch, but it was important to her, so it was important to him. He let her go, letting her sleep as much as she could before she inevitably woke up in cold sweats within six hours.
He was about to make his own way upstairs, though to a separate room to give her some peace, when a gruff voice called out to him in the silent dining floor.
“Hey kid,” Tek’s voice said, boomingly loud even with the man controlling his volume, “can you take this up to Valeri’s room for me? She didn’t eat dinner and she didn’t eat lunch either.”
Rethi adjusted to the other man’s presence quickly, and then taking off the iron mask that he’d left on, not to hide his Midday identity, but really more out of politeness. Rethi, looked over at the man who peaked out of the service window, staring at him with a questioning, slitted eye. Rethi walked over wordlessly and found a bowl of hot stew sitting on a wooden tray being offered to him by the man, and he nodded easily, which the other man seemed to appreciate as he left the kitchen moments after to assumably go to sleep.
Rethi picked up the surprisingly heavy tray and began to walk up the stairs to the rooms, then further down a long hall where Valeri’s door sat, almost the furthest down the hall you could be. Rethi easily held the tray with one hand as he knocked gently, and then a little harder after a moment of non-responsive silence.
After another few moments, he heard the scuffing of a foot on the wooden floorboards, then a slight shift as the door’s lock clicked and the door gently swung open enough for him to see the tall, dark-skinned woman who’d been holing herself up in the room for days.
“Food.” He said simply, offering her the tray, and after a moment of looking at it with her sad eyes, she opened the door to grab it, and then simply stood there, staring at Rethi. Rethi almost turned and simply left to his room for the night, but when he looked deeper into her expression, weary and depressed, he sighed deeply, wondering if his master had foreseen such an encounter.
“Do you… need someone to talk to?” He asked, and before he knew it, he’d signed himself up for one heavy conversation.