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"Enter!" Lucian's voice bellowed, and Cassowary opened the door. Following him in was a nervous-looking, middle-aged man with a balding head and noticeable paunch.

“Cassowary,” Lucian said, his forehead creasing into a frown. Elven features weren’t well-suited to malevolence, but Lucian made it work.

“I take it,” Lucian said, “that you’re showing your face here because you have what I asked for.”

"Yes, sir, Mr Lucian," Cassowary said quickly. "This man is a bookmaker here in the pits and has been for some years. He knows all about the girl."

The middle-aged man visibly gulped as Lucian looked him up and down.

“Name?” Lucian demanded.

“Hubert, sir. They call me Bert the Bookie.”

“Not your name, imbecile. The fighter, Nightingale.”

“Sorry, sir. Her name’s Sophie, sir. Sophie Wexler.”

“You just heard Cassowary tell me you knew everything about her which, for your sake, I very much hope is true. Tell me everything, Bert the Bookie.”

"Everything, sir, yes, sir," Hubert said. "She wasn't born local but came over with her father, when she was real little, like. This was at the time of the monster surge before last. I remember that's when it was because her father was part of this merchant group. The head of their muscle. Seems they hadn't been doing so well and gambled big on a sailing run during the surge. There’s a reason no-one sails during a surge, though, and they lost everything. Only a handful made it in on some dinghies, including the girl and her old man. She couldn’t have been more than two or three years old.”

“He took a little girl out to sea during a monster surge?” Cassowary asked. “What a prick.”

“Shut up,” Lucian said to Cassowary, then returned his gaze to Hubert. “You, keep talking.”

“Well, the merchant group was done,” Hubert continued. “No ships, not even the money for passage back after the surge was over. The girl’s old man went to work for Silva. Not Cole Silva who’s in charge now, obviously. His old dad. Good man, too. Tough, but fair, you know?”

“Get on with it.”

“Sorry, sir. So, the girl’s old man could fight, like, proper fight, and catches the old man’s attention. Does well under Silva Senior for a lot of years, until there’s a problem. Silva Junior takes an interest in the girl.”

“Hardly a surprise,” Lucian said. “He has eyes.”

"She is a looker, sir. But she didn't want any part of Silva the younger, and none could blame her. He'd left more than a few professional women in no state to undertake their profession, if you catch my drift. Old man Silva, he knows what his son is, and likes the girl's father. So he tells his son that it's hands-off."

“I bet he took that well,” Lucian said.

“About how you’d expect, sir, yes. He did as he was told, but didn’t make things pleasant for the girl. Got to the point that her father decided to get her out. He just didn’t go about it a good way.”

“Oh?”

“The father takes out a loan from Silva the senior. A hefty one. Tries to start up his own trade expedition, but even without a monster surge, the man ain’t got no luck with the sea.”

“Monster attack?”

“Pirates. Was quite the excitement, from what I hear; father and daughter fighting pirates back to back. Managed to fight them off, too, but the father didn’t last long after, and neither did the ship. For the second time in her life the girl arrives at the city in a dinghy, and this time she’s got no father and a shipload of inherited debt. She would have been sixteen, seventeen back then. She had an essence her old man had bought, which had just made the debt all the bigger.”

“That was when she started pit fighting,” Cassowary contributed.

“Shut up, Cassowary,” Lucian barked. “Carry on, Bert.”

“Now, I knew the father and daughter going back to when her father was muscle here in the Fortress,” Hubert said. “He was a hard man. No essences, but I’d seen him put down people who had one, even two. He never fought in the pits himself, but the fighters showed him nothing but respect. His girl, as it turns out, was even better. Run up walls, fly through the damn air like a bird.”

“Nightingale,” Lucian said.

“That’s right,” Hubert said. “She had a good run. Took some beatings early on, but she learned fast. Add that to the way she looks and she got some attention.”

“She fights for Silva?” Lucian asked.

"She did back then, for Silva the elder," Hubert said. "He looked out for her, kept his son off her back, which Silva Junior did not care for. But the old man took a real shine to the girl. Eventually, she gave up the ring, found some other way to pay the old man back. High-end thieving was what I heard. She had a friend who made the plans and the tools, she did the second-storey work."

“Then why is she back in the pits?” Lucian asked. “And who does she fight for, now?”

"That goes back to when Old Man Silva died,” Hubert said. “There was talk old man Silva wasn't going to pass the mantle down to his son," Hubert said. "Too impulsive, too beholden to his own appetites. Word is, the old man was going to step back and pass it to one of the old-guard before he passed. Someone who’d respect the old man’s treatment of the girl.”

“But he didn’t pass it on to anyone else,” Lucian said.

“No, he didn’t,” Hubert agreed. “Couple of months ago, the old man went in his sleep. There were rumours, of course, but nothing came of them. Since the old man hadn’t said otherwise, the son stepped in. Damn near the first thing he did was go after the girl. As far as I know, she’d almost cleared the old debt, but now it’s in the hands of Silva Junior. He made plenty clear the only payment he’ll take. She and her friend have a skill-set, though, and made themselves scarce. Found their way to another of the Big Three, Clarissa Ventress. Cut a deal to protect them from Silva.”

“So Ventress is making her fight again?” Lucian asked.

“Word is, she’s only doing it to annoy Silva.”

“What does she get out of that?”

“The transition from father to son hasn’t been smooth for Silva’s people,” Hubert explained. “The old man was stable and reliable, while it’s no secret his son is just the opposite. He ousted his father’s old guard, put in his own people. That's left a lot of folks uncertain and nervous about Silva's position in the Big Three. There's been talk about the other two snatching away at Silva’s territory. Word is, the only reason they haven’t moved is they don’t want Island folk coming down here. Begging your pardon, sir.”

"So Ventress is using the girl," Lucian said. "She wants to make Silva do something stupid."

“The Big Three know better than to rock the boat too hard,” Hubert said. “They don’t want folk like you, sir, coming in and dealing with them.”

“But if Cole Silva does something loud and impulsive,” Lucian said, “then Ventress steps in to settle it down. She claims new territory and makes good with the Island powers at the same time.”

“You see it clear,” Hubert said. “If I might say, sir, you’re as smart as I’ve heard.”

Lucian laughed.

“I usually detest sycophancy,” Lucian said, “but I like you, Bert the Bookie.”

He opened a drawer, taking out a pouch of coins and tossing it to Hubert.

“You’re a good storyteller,” Lucian said. “If you come across any others worth telling, you came and find Cassowary, here.”

“Thanking you, sir, I’ll be sure and do that.”

Hubert departed the viewing box, coin pouch clutched possessively in both hands. That left Lucian and Cassowary alone, the younger man looking nervously at his employer. Lucian glanced at the younger man, his own face unreadable. Cassowary grew increasingly more unnerved as the silence extended.

“Adequate,” Lucian said finally, send relief spilling over Cassowary’s face. “I want you to arrange a meeting with Clarissa Ventress. Can I rely on you for that?”

"Yes, Mr Lucian, sir."

***

Belinda arrived at the Broadstreet Clinic to find a notice on the door. It announced that Mr Tillman wasn't in for the day. Basic medical supplies could be purchased from the reception and Mr Asano would be in at the usual times, but strictly for emergency cases.

Inside, the waiting room was quite full.

“Sorry, Mr Asano,” she heard Janice the receptionist say. “The notice said emergencies only, but of course, people ignore it.”

“Or can’t read,” a man said, coming out from the back room. It was the same man who had given Sophie the free ointment. His sharp features and dark, clear eyes looked stern until a friendly smile lit up his face like a light.

“Who’s next, Janice?” he asked.

Janice called up a young mother with her son, the man leading them into the back. Belinda then approached the reception desk.

“I’m looking to buy some more ointment and potions,” Belinda told Janice. “And some crystal wash, if you have it.”

The magic cleaning fluid was more expensive than a shower, but Sophie kept ending up drenched in blood. She knew Jory produced some to sell at the Adventure Society trade hall.

“All out of crystal wash, I’m afraid,” Janice said. "Mr Asano keeps buying it all. He's very particular about cleanliness. He says there is tiny dirt that you can't see, but can make you sick. Sounds like nonsense to me, but Mr Tillman says he’s right, so there you have it.”

“Who is this guy?” Belinda asked. “Another alchemist?”

“No, he’s training to be an adventurer,” Janice said. “He’s always out back, lifting weights or meditating. He just pops in every once in a while to cure everyone lined up with his abilities. Does it for free, too.”

“For free?”

“For free,” Janice confirmed.

“Doesn’t that hurt Jory’s business?”

“Oh, he never makes much money off the clinic, anyway,” Janice said. “Mostly he sells things at the trade hall or even takes the occasional adventuring contract. That’s where he is today.”

“So what does this Asano get out of it, if he’s working for free?” Belinda asked. “Doesn’t that seem a bit suspect, to you?”

"No, Mr Asano isn't like that,” Janice said. “He says it lets him practise his healing ability, and he is always practising so hard. But really, I think he just likes helping people.”

“Still sounds suspicious to me.”

"Oh, you wouldn't think so if you got to know him," Janice said. “It’s also good that Mr Tillman has a friend. He used to spend all his time upstairs with his little experiments.”

“Still, keep an eye on him,” Belinda said. “You should never trust people who say they just want to help.”

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Shirtaloon

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