The planning phase of the conquest takes me by surprise. I expected many things from Lady Sephare: a cold and reptilian intellect, an impressive network of informants, a secret army… something! I also expected her to give me a precise plan that I would have to follow since she is the leader in this operation.
I was terribly wrong.
I do not know if the difference stems from culture or her personality, however what is certain is that Sephare’s approach to strategizing is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. And yet, I cannot deny its efficacy.
First, she invites me for tea, again, and spends an entire hour questioning me about my takeover of Marquette. How did I proceed? Who did I recruit? What structure did I use? How did I handle the problems I faced? The questions are many and apparently important, since she asks me to elaborate on several occasions, never interrupting me.
The next set of questions are even more curious. What opportunities did I miss? What do I regret? I do not understand why she asks these questions yet I answer, with the belief that she has more experience and a vested interest in her own success.
Her inquiries are never personal enough to grate on me, and I have the distinct feeling that she is doing more than just preparing for the next task. She is assessing me as an ally, or even a rival which we will inevitably become if everything goes well.
I have much to learn.
Eventually, we move to another table containing a map of the district, and it is then that I realize the full extent of Lady Sephare’s preparations.
Washington is not as big a city, as I expected from the Capital. It is, in fact, two counties bound together artificially and placed under the direct control of the federal government. The location itself is the result of a compromise. Before the decision, it was mostly marshland.
I am terribly embarrassed that a foreigner would teach me that.
In any case, two counties make up Sephare’s potential territory. To the east of the Potomac River, a federal city harbors the capitol and all the other important landmarks. To the west lies the city of Alexandria, an important slave trade location currently in decline, partly due to fear that the federal government will outlaw slavery within its own district. This is where Lady Sephare wants me to focus my efforts since I have “just the right set of skills”.
“Alexandria must become my primary source of income and recruits. There are three gangs and two mage groups I would like you to take over,” she says.
“Subjugate or neutralize?” I ask.
“Goodness me, my dear, you do not mince your words! To answer your question, nobody wants to rule over a graveyard, do they? Whenever possible, I would like you to convince their leader to meet me for negotiations. All in good faith, I assure you. Of course, I expect that some of them may prove unreasonable. Do your best!”
Force them to negotiate or perish, make examples. Got it.
“I want you to attend the meeting with their leaders, dear. I am confident that I can teach you a thing or two, not that you need much!”
“Of course, it would be my pleasure.”
“Lovely! Oh, I am so chuffed. I did not expect that we could start so early!”
And there lies her genius. She is alone, therefore she does not have the numbers to rule over an entire county, yet. By deliberately choosing a smaller city with a disproportionate political influence, she has made the best use of her means.
This begs the question, why is she alone? Someone of her power should have a cadre of Masters and Courtiers surrounding her at all times. Perhaps she is the first wave, or an experiment, or perhaps It is something more sinister.
Once more, I made an alliance with someone I did not fully understand and while it saved me before, it might just cost me in the future.
In truth, I have rushed into the game with clumsy enthusiasm only to realize that I was surrounded by bear traps. Only my friends and Torran’s interest have protected me from the consequences of my recklessness so far. This needs to change. Lady Sephare is the one I should emulate. She reveals little, learns much and weighs her decisions. Yes, I am convinced that she knows how to play.
I still want to know why she is here, alone.
I think about it as the meeting ends and she politely shoos me on my way. Back to my room, I pack my belongings and before I prepare for dawn, I do something I should have done before, ask Salim for a file on Sephare herself.
Alexandria, District of Columbia, November 1833.
John, Urchin and I are the last to arrive by carriage at the safe house Sephare has prepared for us. Alexandria is bordered in the east by the Potomac River, and the scent of muddy water battles that of misery to assault my senses.
We are located at the southern end of town, and even from here I can see that the city was made by design rather than nature. Straight avenues split it in squarish blocks of perfect geometry, affording me and everyone else a commanding view of the land. As I step down, I spot a woman picking her nose five blocks away.
The contrast between the regular lines and the outward signs of poverty defies logic. How can something planned so thoroughly also be so poor? Derelict warehouses and decrepit buildings outnumber affluent stores by a factor of five. The people in the street are clad in drab clothes, huddling in large groups and moving around with tense shoulders and shifty eyes. Here and there, manacled slaves shuffle forth under the vigilant eyes of their captors.
Slave trade is the lifeblood of the city. Under the purview of the Franklin and Armfield Company which has the dubious honor of being the largest slave trading business in the United States, thousands of slaves are gathered each year to be sent to their Mississippi, Natchez and even New Orleans branches. The rest of the city is in economic decline and it shows.
I can feel it.
In the air floats a general miasma, a scent of anguish and rage, at lost opportunities and robbed freedom. It lacks the beautiful clarity of true anger I sometimes admire in my enemies. Instead, it worms its way in the heart like an insidious infection to sour everything and everyone it can affect.
I close my eyes and listen. A few houses away, a man is beating a screaming child. Each meaty impact comes to interrupt an incoherent litany of supplications.
It reminds me of Marquette, before I brought order to the chaos.
Sometimes, I wonder if the mortals can truly be left to rule themselves. So many of them lack vision and long-term planning. So many struggle for power only to grab onto it with tooth and nail until one of their victims finally manages to take them down, screaming into the abyss.
I shake my head. This is not the time to complain. With John, Urchin, and our luggage in tow, I climb up a set of stone stairs to what will be our temporary residence.
The house is a three-story building surrounded by a garden protected from inquisitive eyes by a row of tall aspens. The wooden walls are painted the ubiquitous white, and the interior is soberly furnished and decorated. In other words, this building is completely unremarkable, which is exactly what we need.
We let ourselves in. John will live here with both King and Crews until we can secure safer accommodations for them while Urchin and I will stay here during the whole operation. I let John explore while I climb down to the basement and my shared den. There, behind a fake wall, lies a secured and heavily enchanted gate. The workings themselves must have cost more than the entire edifice. Satisfied, I climb back up just as the two remaining members of the team join us. I drag everyone to the living room and they settle around the central table, upon which a map of the town was placed.
“I will now start the general briefing for this operation. As you all know, our goal here is to take over Alexandria from within, and that means going after every interest group that can stop us and bringing them to heel.”
I place a few pins on the map as I continue my explanation.
“Fortunately, we will not have to take over major companies and the government as Lady Sephare intends to do it herself progressively over the next few months. As for our immediate targets, there are five: three gangs and two magic societies.”
King raises his hand while idly passing a hand in his bushy beard. In order to fit in, he switched from a leather outfit to a more polished suit that marks him as a house slave. With his solid frame and placid face, he looks tame enough not to attract too much attention and intimidating enough that the local thugs will leave him alone.
“Yes?” I offer.
“How come there are so many? There are less than five thousand people living here.”
“Good question,” I reply, “I suspect that the proximity of the capital caused the magic population to increase. As for the gangs, they are caused by a conjunction of poverty, human traffic, and the presence of docks. I do not believe that we will face anything unexpected. Keep your eyes open, in any case.”
“Now for the plan, our best bet is to go after the different groups one by one, starting with the bottom of the social ladder. That means the gangs.”
I point to the more affluent part of town.
“Over here are the Federals. They are almost legal, and they offer private security for visitors and businessmen alike. They operate a few loan sharks around town and control this area so I included them but I do not expect too much trouble. I will visit them tomorrow evening and talk to their director. The next two are more concerning.”
I point at the docks.
“The riverside is under the domain of the Potomac Mudmen. They focus on smuggling and protection rackets, mostly, with some illegal fights on the side. They recruit from German and French immigrants and are relative newcomers around here.”
I then point at the slave pens.
“Those are the Pomm Street Ratcatchers. They are the most numerous group here, and the oldest gang around. They have the habit of starting fires in houses of people they don’t like and since they control the fire brigade, extinguish it just a bit too late. Their other major source of income besides protection rackets is kidnappings. They have agents go over the North and find interesting black freemen, who they proceed to kidnap and sell here. The slaves are carried south, most of the time before they can be rescued.”
I stop for a moment as King’s massive hands clutch the table until the wood groans.
“Sorry,” he whispers, his eyes still shining with barely repressed hatred.
“As such,” I continue, “they have the most money and power. Lady Sephare and I agree that three gangs is two too many. The Federals’ illegal activities will be suspended and one of the remaining groups destroyed. After consideration, we have decided to ally with the Mudmen and destroy the Ratcatchers.”
King visibly relaxes, while Urchin raises a hand.
“I’ll take smugglers over kidnappers any day of the week, that said, why not take over the biggest group?”
I nod to show my support. I encourage inquisitive minds, especially when they are employed in my service.
“We would prefer to keep this town’s social structure mostly intact and cannot do so if the local hierarchy crumbles. The head of the Ratcatchers is a man who goes by Jed the Paunch. He has ruled the streets with an iron fist for the last ten years with the benediction of the local judge, with powerful lieutenants removed as soon as they became a threat. I estimate that, should I dominate him, he will lose the edge that allowed him to stay in power so far and fall within a week. His personality is simply too paranoid and aggressive to come to an amenable agreement without stripping him of his abilities, I’m afraid. At the same time, there is no heir apparent to replace him should he fall. Any partial removal will lead to a struggle for dominance, so it makes much more sense to destroy the entire leadership in one blow and absorb the rank and file into a pre-existing organization.”
I pause, considering whether I should share the rest of my thoughts. In the end, I decide to do it.
“He’s also a despicable prick and I want him dead.”
For some reason, all the others nod in understanding.
“Right. I will start working on the gang issue after I wake up. Tomorrow, I want King to find us a warehouse on neutral ground. Present yourself as my butler. Feel free to grease some palms.”
“Crews, you stand out too much so I need you to stay hidden until we reveal ourselves.”
The Creek warrior nods silently, a finger trailing the massive scar on his face. He is still wearing his hunter leathers and I see no reason for him to change. Unlike King, he will never fit in here.
“Good. You should rest tonight. Urchin and I will scout the town. Dismissed.”
The tables at the King’s Inn are spaced enough to grant their occupants some semblance of privacy. The white cloths and silver cutlery give it a luminous sheen, almost enough for everyone to forget the rampant poverty outside. The majordomo leads me forward with a light frown, hinting at the intense disapproval he feels. Mr. Cole is, after all, a married man.
The unofficial leader of the “Federals” gang is an old man with the weathered face of a career soldier. He sits ramrod straight in his chair, holding a book and sipping a tankard of ale. He lifts an imperious brow when I sit at his table without permission.
The majordomo hesitates behind me, then decides to beat a hasty retreat.
Tonight, I am wearing another elegant dress in pale blue unassuming yet of good enough make that those who see me would recognize affluence. Cole inspects me, then dismisses me almost immediately.
“Whatever you’re selling, lady, I’m not interested.”
Indeed, his sin is not lust.
“I have a letter for you from the Premier Atlantic Bank. I suggest you read it. Now.”
Cole frowns at my tone, but the mere mention of his main creditor brings fear where there was annoyance. Now, he stares at the piece of paper as if it were a bear trap.
“It would be in your best interest not to try my employer’s patience, Mr. Cole.”
The veteran businessman knows where this is going, I can tell. He may gamble with his money, and the bank’s money, but not with his life. With shaking hands, he opens the missive and reads it with slow purpose.
The message is short and unambiguous. We bought all of his debts and can freely repossess his home, his office and most of his assets.
“What do you want,” he asks in a low voice. His composure does him credit, though I can taste his terror and his stress on his perspiration and in the beating of his heart. The tip of my tongue slides over a fang. Patience. I am no glutton and there will be ample opportunities… later.
“You are to cease all activities outside of your security business, including those pertaining to Wolfe and Jefferson streets. They will be taken over by my employer.”
He probably has other activities besides those two loan sharks, but we have not found them yet. He does not need to know that.
Anger manages to push his fear away.
“How do you expect me to repay you if you take away my income?” he hisses. An old round lady two tables away turns in our direction with the raptor-like focus of the consummate gossip. I lower my voice and lean forward.
“You will receive a two months moratorium on the interest payments if the transition occurs without a hitch. We would hold you personally responsible if something… untoward, were to happen. I highly suggest you oversee the proceedings yourself.”
“Who the hell are you people?”
“That is not your concern. Good night, Mr. Cole, we will meet again.”
I stand up and leave the noticeably paler man behind me. The Federals were by far the easiest target. Now, I can begin in earnest.
The carriage deposits me in front of the office of the respectable Mr. Jones, harbormaster. I knock on the door of the large building and am quickly let in by an annoyed man with a pencil-thin moustache.
“What business do you have here?” he asks with as much disdain as he can gather.
I ponder having John, who’s right behind me, teach him some manners. Unfortunately, we are still in enemy territory and I need to keep a somewhat low profile for as long as I can.
“Mr. Jones is expecting me.”
“Is he now?”
“Yes,” I add, with just a hint of pressure, “he is.”
The infuriating doorman takes in my appearance and finally recognizes the marks of understated wealth.
“Apologies, please come in.”
We follow him inside and up a set of stairs to a cluttered office where the dockmaster awaits us. John takes position by the door, the easy smile on my host’s face disappearing immediately.
“Are you… Miss Lethe?” the old man asks, while nervously cleaning a monocle on an ink-stained waistcoat.
“I am. I require an introduction.”
“With your friends on Union Street. By the docks,” I continue.
At the mention of his… less savory acquaintances, Mr. Jones pales. He licks his lips as his eyes search for the exit, finding John in the way.
“I am not sure what you mean…”
“My employer is moving assets and we require additional security,” I soberly explain.
Jones may look like a pleasant grandfather, but he has used the Mudmen on more than one occasion to quell unrest born from the low wages he pays his employees. As far as we can tell, he is one of their primary sources of income.
“Just business then?” the dockmaster asks, not believing his luck.
I smile congenially. Indeed. Just business. For now.
“Well… I suppose there is no harm,” he continues with clear relief. He still casts a dubious look at John. No one in their right mind would look at him and think “peaceful financial transaction”.
“Let us go, then.”
We walk along the river. At this time of the night, the silence is only broken by the sobs and prayers of living cargo, their stench and misery permeating the shore. One establishment is still open.
The Mud Shack is a two-story building nestled between two warehouses. It is surprisingly large and well-lit, standing proudly as a beacon to drunkenness in the otherwise sleepy street. Men with keen eyes gather in packs, holding tankards and each other while singing rowdy songs. Their workman attire is so similar that they might as well be wearing a uniform.
“John, stay there,” I order my bodyguard after assessing the crowd. Jones looks back but does not comment and we soon reach the edge of the halo of light surrounding the Mudmen’s retreat.
Immediately, five different men gaze at us. When they recognize my companion, they lower their guard, though their eyes still follow me as I make my way to the door.
We come in and I see that I was right to leave John outside.
The Mud Shack’s main floor is covered with round tables around which a good forty people have gathered. Not all of them are gang members, there are also dockers and day laborers. They are clearly happy to be there.
The only members of the fairer sex are three serving girls and a barwoman.
Not all gangs are averse to women in their ranks. The Ratcatchers employ grifters, con artists and pickpockets while they also have their own ladies of the night. In that case, women usually form a different subgroup within the organization with their own leaders and structure.
The alternative is to leave the women home and consider them as civilians. This is the way the Mudmen went. If my intuition is correct, I will be received with less suspicion but it will also be significantly harder for me to be taken seriously.
Taking John inside would have been perceived as a challenge.
The hollow-eyed barwoman inspects me with palpable hatred. Perhaps it is my new dress, or the fact that I have all my teeth and do not smell like a barrack? Who knows? In any case, she quickly weighs my presence against the fact that I am led here by Jones and does what every good subordinate does: she lets her superiors decide.
With a quick gesture, she directs us to a backroom.
I manage to make it through the crowded room without errant hands trying their luck. At least they are well-behaved.
Without a word, we make it to the backroom where six pairs of eyes watch us in silence.
Four belong to poker players armed to the teeth. Guards. Inconsequential.
The last two are the power here, the decision-makers. I can tell from their fearlessness, their pride, the way they look down upon us despite our superior social status. They make me want to kill them here and now, watch the horror and the pain in their eyes as I slaughter every last one of them and claim the place as my own. The drive to kill surges in my heart, only to be extinguished just as quickly.
I am patient. They will bow, in the end. This is just a small part of the true game.
“Jones? Who is this?”
“Ah, my dear Ritter, this is Miss Lethe from Boston. She asked me to introduce the two of you.”
I take in the leader of the Mudmen. Ritter is a man of medium height in his early forties. He has the body of a worker gone to fat, with a potbelly and solid arms. His hair sprouts from his scalp in undisciplined clumps but his moustache is perfectly groomed, and his light blue eyes show cunning and impatience in equal measures.
His companion is much younger, with shoulder-length sandy hair and clear brown eyes. He wears the same attire as the rest of the gang with some extra attention to his appearance, like a colored scarf and a necklace. Just enough to be noticed. I decide that he is probably a protégé.
“Hear that lads? We’re famous,” Ritter says with a gravelly voice. His stooges chuckle obligingly.
I have two ways to do this. I could play the temptress, mixing elegance with just a bit of flirtation. This would position me as a ‘traditional’ woman and guarantee a polite distance. It could, however, backfire when they realize they will be working for Lady Sephare.
The second way is to come out as an off-man. It would deprive me of my civilian status, in exchange for a more equal relationship.
I will go with that.
I step forward, overtaking Jones. Immediately, the smiles turn to cold masks.
“My employer believes we have a common problem.”
“Who is that employer and what problem would that be?”
“We will remain anonymous.”
“I don’t think you will,” the man says as he stands up.
Jones retreats to the side while the guards form a half-circle at my back. Ritter closes the distance between us with his pretty boy by his side. He invades my personal space. His breath reeks of cigar.
“Now…” he begins, then stops when he feels the cold business end of a concealed pistol pointing at his unmentionables.
TOO CLOSE. SLAUGHTER THE SHEEP.
Our eyes meet. I do not try to Charm him as there is no need.
Then, slowly, Ritter smiles.
“You’ve got stones, woman, I’ll give you that.”
With a handwave, he sends his men to sit back down and takes a respectful step back. He walks back to his desk and pours himself a glass of liquor.
“I’ll hear you out, but watch your words.”
“We want the Ratcatchers gone.”
That got their attention. I hear gasps and accelerating heartbeats all around as they realize the enormity of what I just said. To me the Ratcatchers are just one hurdle on the path but to them, it has been the dominating force in Alexandria for years. Always, they have had to live with that shadow.
“If it were so easy, we would have done it already, woman. You want to bring in an army?”
“I only need access to their leaders including Jed the Paunch. We will take care of the rest.”
Wallace scoffs, his disdain clear. He does not think much of outsiders, an arrogance born from half a decade of unchallenged power. He is wrong.
It is a mistake to believe that a stable situation will remain so in the future. A crown can be lost in a day.
I hope that Jed has formed a similar bias…
Eventually, greed and hope overtake the man’s caution. I can tell that he does not truly believe I will be successful. It is chaos that sways him, and hope that I will upset the Ractcatchers enough to damage their position in the city.
“In three days, there will be a Death Dance. It’s an underground tournament that occurs every year with a good amount of money to be won. All of the Ratcatchers leaders will show up with their champions. Not that it matters. The Crusher is undefeated.”
“A contest of pugilists?”
“Bare-knuckled, vicious fighting. Crusher’s been earning his nickname for a while now. Only the desperate and the insane join the fight now. Fresh faces looking to make a name, debtors, slaves looking for freedom, take your pick. It’s still bloody fun. Just, people bet on how long the guys will last.”
“Do they accept new entries?”
“Yeah, you can join the tournament, but didn’t you hear a word I say? Whoever you throw in there’s either defeated by a contestant or killed by that monster.”
I cannot help the slow, slow smile creeping on me. All of the Ratcatcher leadership under a single roof? A distraction? This is just perfect.
“Do not concern yourself, Herr Ritter. I have just the man.”