“You know, there are few things more risky in life than trying to making a name for yourself in the world of the Gifted.” The figure in the beautiful ornate mask said, as he gently poured steaming liquid into his cup. “After all, when there’s every chance that your next opponent has abilities beyond your wildest comprehension, even the simplest of confrontations become a most dangerous game indeed.”
The black-haired man sitting opposite didn’t answer. His eyes darted between the masked figure and the small steak knife sitting a few inches away on the table. If he was careful enough, moved quickly enough…
A low grumble sounded from directly behind him and the man felt hot breath on the back of his neck.
Scratch that idea then.
“Of course, when most people think about these things, they think in terms of kingdoms and lordships and the like,” the masked figure continued, showing no obvious indication that he’d noticed the little byplay, “but the criminal underworld is a game all of its own, one with infinitely higher stakes.”
The masked man finished filling his teacup to the brim and gently added a pinch of sugar from a small clay bowl by his side. He gently removed a small section of the bottom of his mask, leaving room to take a small sip. A contented sigh passed his face.
“Of course, most major gangs and crime syndicates are obviously run by Gifted these days.” The masked figure slowly began stirring his tea with a silver spoon. “After all, no regular man can outmuscle, outsmart or otherwise outmatch a Gifted with the right Gift.” He raised the cup again and gently blew on it. “But Gifted come and go like day and night in the underworld. Only very few are worth taking particular note of, as far as I’m concerned.”
The man cleared his throat and spoke in a gruff lowborn accent. “Then, if ya don’t mind me asking, why am I here? I ain’t no Gifted.”
The masked figure tilted his head. One could almost get the impression that he was smiling behind his mask. “Quite right. I was just about to get to that.”
The black-haired man shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“See, while I don’t bother keeping track of every criminal Gifted, minus the ones who interest me,” the masked figure picked up his teacup and carefully stepped over towards the table. “I do make a note of keeping track of every notable Ungifted criminal I can. Because while any Gifted can carve out a place for themselves if they receive the right power, a Ungifted man or woman reaches their particular position by nothing but their wits alone.” The figure took a seat directly opposite the man. “So imagine my surprise when I learned that Viktor ‘Blacktongue’ Vikare, one of the most prolific conmen on the continent had just arrived at the city docks.” The masked figure took another sip from his tea, before tilting his head curiously. “Tell me, Mr Vikare, what brings you to my fair city?”
Viktor swallowed nervously. “Well, Baron Trinite… Would you believe I’m here for the view?”
Baron Trinite, one of the most powerful Crime Barons in the city, gave Viktor a condescending look. His voice, slightly distorted by his own mask, was simperingly sweet. “No more than I’d believe you were eyeing that steak knife so you could help me with my dinner.” He nodded to the figure standing behind Viktor. “Speaking of, Draug, could you handle that please?”
A clawed hand slammed down onto the steak knife. Viktor looked up to see the snarling dragon-shaped helm of the enormous armoured beast-knight dragon… thing known as Draug. It was everything he could do not to flinch back in the face of one of the most feared Gifted in the city.
Possibly second only to the figure sitting opposite Viktor carefully breathing on a fresh cup of tea.
Viktor wasn’t entirely certain how he’d managed to catch the attention of Baron Trinite, the Young Rogue, the person who was likely the second biggest Crime Baron in the harbour city of Whitewing. He was certain he’d managed to sneak into the city undetected, having arrived in disguise as a crewmate of a small merchant vessel. Yet he’d barely been in the city for an hour before he was grabbed in a secluded alley, had a bag pulled over his head and found himself being dragged to have tea with one of the most frightening men in the city and his pet dragon-goon.
Oh, Viktor had certainly done his research on Trinite. Heck, he’d done his research on every important figure in the city on both sides of the law. High Prince Northstar, the ruler of Whitewing, Diamondback, the largest active Crime Baron, Musk, another of the more influential criminal Gifted, the Nightlife King and a few dozen minor players on top of that. But, in spite of his relative youth, Trinite had always been the one who’d struck Viktor as the most dangerous to get involved with.
Trinite had entered the game young. Very young. He’d been little more than a boy when he and and the much older Draug had made their arrival in the criminal underworld (although it was difficult to be certain considering the numerous lengths Trinite went to to hide his age and identity). Trinite claimed his Gift was one of prophecy, a capability to see the future, and thus made offers to the harbour city’s numerous smugglers to provide them with routes and times to safely ship their wares without drawing attention from the city guards. He’d also offered Draug’s services as hired muscle in case of conflicts.
Initially, they’d been laughed off by most of the major players in the game, in large part due to Trinite’s young age and Draug’s obvious submissiveness to the child. However, for those willing to take the risk, Trinite’s advice came through and soon almost every smuggler in the city hung on his every word before shipping their wares. Trinite used that influence to bring said smugglers together into a minor gang under his control. That was when people started to take notice.
Several years of carefully planning and intelligent uses of his Gift later, combined with numerous backstabs, creative ploys and one particular brawl involving Draug and a would-be Crime Baron named Bonebreaker that left the latter dead and a good portion of the city aflame, the young crime lord had risen to become one of the biggest players in the city, maintaining a reputation of great craftiness to his allies and utter ruthlessness towards his enemies.
Which was why it was probably a bad thing that Viktor was locked in a room with him.
“You know, as much I enjoy your gormless stare,” Trinite said, snapping Viktor back to reality. “I was rather expecting an answer about what exactly you’re doing in Whitewing City.”
Viktor licked his lips. He momentarily considered lying, but he didn’t know how Trinite’s Gift worked, nor the extent of its capabilities. Besides which, there wasn’t much reason to hide the general details of his plot. “I’m here on a job.”
Trinite stilled. Behind the mask, Viktor got the impression of eyes narrowing. “I see. Is this a job you were hired for or something undertaken on your own accord?”
“My own accord.” Viktor answered immediately. “No-one else in involved at this point in time.”
The Crime Lord seemed to lighten slightly. “Good. And your target?”
Viktor licked his lips again. This bit might be a bit more treacherous. “High Prince Northstar. One of my aliases has been offered a place in his daughter’s household. I intend to accept and worm my way into Whitestone Keep.”
“Oh?’ Trinite definitely sounded interested now. The young crime lord placed his tea on the table and rested his chin on his hand. “Very ambitious of you. What’s your target?”
Viktor sucked in a slight breath. Now this was something he was definitely going to have to keep secret. If he pulled this job off, the consequences would most likely land on the heads of people like Trinite. And there would definitely be big consequences indeed.
“I’m not completely certain yet.” He instead lied, keeping his face and voice level. “I want to see what worthwhile treasures the High Prince has first before making my decision on how to best fleece him.”
“…I see.” There was an odd tone to Trinite’s voice that Viktor couldn’t quite place. Behind him, there was another deep growl from Draug. “How very… sensible of you, Blacktongue.”
Unsure how to react to such a compliment, Viktor simply nodded his head.
Meanwhile, Trinite seemed to have come to a conclusion. “Very well.” He clapped his hands together. “You have my blessing for this ‘job’ of yours, Blacktongue. I will be quite interested to see how you pull it off.” He leaned in closer. “Of course, I will be expecting a cut of profits in exchange for my support. Shall we say… 25% of what you make?”
Viktor barely managed to hide his wince. He’d been afraid of that. Trinite’s ‘support’ was little more than transparent blackmail, a threat that if the crime lord wasn’t sufficiently reimbursed, he would leak the information straight to Northstar and get Viktor sent to the gallows. Or worse, send Draug to go after Viktor himself.
Still, he could always try his shot at haggling. “How about 20%?”
“30%.” Trinite shot back.
Viktor paused. “…that’s larger than 25%…”
Trinite’s cheerful tone didn’t change. “I know.”
Draug started growling again. The message was clear. This was not a negotiation. Trinite did not like his attempts at haggling. Do not press further on this.
“25% sounds just fine, my Lord.” Viktor said with an obviously false smile. “I assume I will in exchange also be allowed to call upon your services, should I need them?”
Trinite gave a false smile back in return. “Of course. Providing that you stick to the terms of his arrangement. Should you not… well…” The crime lord nodded at Draug.
The dragon knight snarled, pulling back his scaly lips to reveal a row of razor sharp teeth. He raised his fist above the table and let a small crumpled object drop with a loud clunk. It took Viktor a moment to recognise the object, melted and crushed as it was.
The steak knife. Solid steel melted in an instant.
Viktor managed to hold back his gulp. Instead, he gave Trinite the sweetest and most hollow smile he could muster.
“I think I understand perfectly, your lordship.”
Trinite’s smile widened. “Excellent. You may go then. My man will give you instructions on how to contact me on your way out.” He reaffixed the bottom of his mask. “Don’t disappoint me.”
“You have my word.” Viktor bowed. He could barely conceal his grin. So much for Prophetic gifts. The idiot crimelord clearly didn’t suspect a thing, otherwise Viktor would never have been allowed to leave the room alive. Not just because Viktor had absolutely no intention of splitting any money he made with Trinite, but because if Viktor’s plan came to fruition, Trinite and his ilk would be the first to taste the wroth of High Prince Northstar and his family.
After all, Viktor wasn’t aiming to steal some simple trinket. No.
He was going to kidnap and sell High Prince Northstar’s only daughter.
Two Months Later…
“I hate him!” Princess Lucinda Lucce screamed, slamming the door shut behind her. “I hate him so much!”
Viktor didn’t look up from his work. “I take it the meeting with your father didn’t go well, Princess?”
Lucinda ignored him and stormed straight to her enormous king-sized bed. She threw herself onto the silken sheets and began to dramatically sob. Viktor, ever the dutiful servant, waited a few minutes before carefully making his way to her side.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
Lucinda let out a huff and pressed her face into her pillow. “Daddy just doesn’t understand my talents.”
Viktor sighed. He’d heard this one before.
“I mean, why won’t he let me do anything important?!” Lucinda continued. “I’ve spent so much time studying and learning, but whenever I offer to help with the castle finances or with running the household, he just scolds me and tells me to go play in the Rose Garden!”
Viktor rubbed her back gently. “You know your father doesn’t want you dealing with that stressful work, my lady.”
“But I can deal with it!” Lucinda protested. “And it’s better than spending every single day wandering the Rose Garden alone!” Her face twisted in a sulk and she sank back into her pillow. “I swear, Daddy would be happier if I was just replaced with a painting. Something to stand there and look pretty.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Viktor crooned. “The High Prince loves you, Princess. Never doubt that.”
Personally, Viktor doubted it a lot. High Prince Northstar barely seemed to give much of a damn about his only daughter, during the few times he’d seen them interact. The High Prince spent most of his time running the city, patrolling the skies or training his three sons in warfare. The most emotion he’d seen from the Prince towards his daughter was irritation when she was being particularly obnoxious.
Not that Viktor could blame him all that much on that point. Lucinda Lucce was a spoiled little brat and it was only thanks to his supreme dedication and skill to his job that he hadn’t broken character and slapped some sense into the little bitch already. She was supposedly almost 16 years old by now, but acted like a child almost half her age. Viktor knew that Dynasty Families had a habit of ‘coddling’ their womenfolk (an understandable trait considering how common a target they were for kidnappings), but this girl was ridiculous.
Lucinda was silent for a moment. Eventually, she turned her head and gave Viktor a hesitant look.
“Viktor . . . could . . . could you please tell me about Baron Trinite again?”
Viktor froze for a moment. Then he smiled. “Of course, my lady. What would you like to know?”
“You told me he’s the biggest Crime Baron in Cromwell,” Lucinda said. “But nobody’s ever seen his face?”
“Indeed. Baron Trinite is a secretive man, with many enemies who would like him dead. Thus, his true identity is kept secret from almost all in his organisation. However, if you manage to truly prove yourself to him,” Viktor leaned in close, “then, he will allow you to look upon his visage.”
“Wow . . .” Lucinda’s eyes were practically sparkling. “He sounds so mysterious. Have you seen his real face? Is he handsome?”
“Eheh, well,” Viktor chuckled, “I’m not one to tell tales, you understand.” He paused. “I will say though, that he has the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen.” He touched Lucinda’s cheek. “Only your green eyes are as breath-taking.”
Lucinda gasped with delight and blushed slightly. Her mind was clearly fantasising about the handsome blue-eyed stranger beneath Trinite’s mask.
Viktor, meanwhile, had turned away so she wouldn’t see the scorn in his expression.
Honestly, it had been practically a stroke of genius to bring Trinite’s name into things. Lucinda Lucce, as mentioned, was almost 16 years old by now and, as such, was nearing a clear marrying age. He’d already heard plenty of whispers about her father searching for potential matches among influential families like the Scurio’s or the Tierra’s, both of whom had boys at around the appropriate age (although the less said about the current Tierra patriarch, the better).
And, naturally, Lucinda being the spoiled rebellious teen she was, whined about this to him almost constantly. Oh, she wanted to marry on her own terms, oh she wanted to marry for love, oh she wanted to run her own castle and so on and so forth. As if she wasn’t already lucky enough to get to live in a comfortable house with no shortage of money all her life.
Still, if there was one thing Viktor knew about girls that age, it was that they always had a thing for the bad boys. The charismatic criminals, the masked rogues, the mysterious-but-devilishly-handsome evildoers with an eye for the ladies. And whatever else one thought about Baron Trinite, he was definitely mysterious and lacked the repulsive factor that a lot of Gifted criminals had.
(Seriously, there was no God in existence who could make someone like Musk sound appealing.)
All it had taken was a few casual comments, a few half-remembered stories, a hint of something more here and there and soon he’d managed to trick the girl into falling head-over-heels for Whitewing’s mysterious young rogue. It was almost comical how easy it was.
Honestly, a small part of him wondered what Trinite might’ve thought of the whole thing. Flattered, hopefully. If he was angry, Viktor wouldn’t live long enough to regret it. Personally, Viktor doubted Trinite was that handsome. One didn’t go to that much of an extent to cover your entire face if there wasn’t something ugly lurking behind it. His face was probably scarred or thick with warts or something disgusting like that.
That said, Viktor would never say such a thing out-loud. Even if he wasn’t already trying to convince the Princess of Trinite’s charms, there were just some things that you never openly said. And Trinite seemed like the sort of man to have agents everywhere.
A knocking sound outside the door caught Viktor’s attention.
Lucinda’s eyes widened and she immediately leaped from her bed, quickly neatening up her dress and hair, to conceal the signs of her distress. Viktor had to give the princess credit, she was very good at concealing her true nature from those she didn’t want to see it. Probably why she had half the castle convinced she was an adorable darling.
Lucinda cleared her throat before speaking in an authoritative voice. “Enter!”
The door creaked open and a dark-skinned young woman in handmaiden’s garb entered, carrying a tray with a steaming cup on it. The woman walked with purpose and steady feet, but when she saw Viktor and Lucinda alone in the room, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Viktor concealed his scowl. Of course Morgiana would turn up now and interrupt his work.
Lucinda, on the other hand, visibly relaxed. Morgiana had been her faithful servant and companion since childhood. She trusted the girl more than anyone else in the castle, even Viktor, to the point where Morgiana had been more or less running her surprisingly meagre household for years. She was also one of the few allowed to accompany the Princess on her daily expeditions to the Rose Garden, the enormous bonafide maze of hedges and flowers that was off limit to most of the staff and was where the Princess tended to spend much of her days.
Now, this all wouldn’t have been much of a problem, if it hadn’t been for one tiny issue. Ever since she’d laid eyes on him, Morgiana had more-or-less hated Viktor on sight.
He wasn’t exactly certain what had tipped her off. Something he’d said? Something he’d done? A general aura of suspiciousness? Maybe she didn’t even know about his double life and was just jealous of the new attention? Whatever the reason, Morgiana had done her utmost to try and keep him separated from Lucinda. Whether it was through small things like making sure the princess was accompanied at all times, or by calling Viktor away for a job in the kitchen (that coincidentally the head cook never remembered calling him for), the dusky handmaiden had near single-handedly delayed his work on the princess by several weeks.
Oh, Viktor had certainly tried to get rid of the meddlesome handmaiden on multiple occasions. He’d hidden pilfered jewelry among her belongings and subtly tipped off the guards, via the use of middlemen. But when they’d searched her things, there was no sign of said jewelry anywhere. He’d paid a servant to claim they saw her stealing food from the kitchen, only to be countered by the testimony of both Princess Lucinda and Prince Ferrucchio Lucce, the second son of Prince Northstar. Apparently, rather than explore the Rose Garden like usual, Lucinda had decided to spend the afternoon playing Lax’s Game with her brother, at the old table. Naturally, Morgiana had been in full attendance the entire time and thus couldn’t possibly have stolen the food. Viktor had had to pay a pretty penny to dispose of the servant before he tattled on Viktor’s true plans.
Hell, he’d even once tried to pay a hired thug to knife her in the back during one of her expeditions to pick up supplies for the household. Key word being tried. Because how the hell was he supposed to know that that particular thug had crossed Diamondback one too many times in the past? Or that said crime boss was out looking for revenge?
(Or at least, he assumed it was Diamondback responsible for that mess. There weren’t many other Gifted who could reduce a man to a bloody smear like that.)
Regardless of whether it was bad luck or something more, it didn’t change the fact that Morgiana was an annoying thorn that he just couldn’t shake. No matter what he said, Lucinda would never even consider throwing her closest handmaiden and friend out of her service. It was one of the few things that she absolutely wouldn’t budge on, no matter what honeyed words he fed her. And Gods only knew what Morgiana was whispering in the Princess’s ear during those endless hours in the Rose Garden, where no male servants were allowed to enter.
Still, Viktor knew he had to swallow his pride and keep the act, so he gave the irritating a servant a glimmering smile.
“Miss Morgiana.” He said cheerfully. “Don’t mind me. The Princess was just feeling a little bit down, so I decided to cheer her up with a few stories.”
Morgiana didn’t answer. She only fixed him with a silent prolonged stare, one that made Viktor fought back a shiver. He hated that stare. It always reminded him of the way a snake watched a mouse intently, before preparing to strike. He’d seen that sort of look a few times in his criminal career and it was never a good sign.
“Oh, don’t mind him, Morgiana.” Lucinda said with a friendly smile. Viktor was almost impressed at how quickly she’d changed moods from ‘temper tantrum’ to ‘cheerful friend.’ “He was just telling me about… well… You-Know-Who.” A blush appeared on her face and she giggled into her hands. “Put the tray down and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Morgiana’s gaze moved lazily from Viktor to Lucinda and back. Then she closed her eyes and shrugged minutely. “As you wish, my lady.”
Taking slow, deliberate steps, the dark-skinned handmaiden gently placed the tray down on a small side table. As she did, Viktor surreptitiously leaned over and peeked at the steaming liquid inside the cup. He took a slight sniff and his face frowned.
“Is that tea?” He said in a low voice. “You know the Princess hates tea.”
Hate was an understatement. The last time he had tried serving her tea ended in a shrieking temper tantrum, a fairly expensive cup being thrown against the wall and Morgiana being brought in to sooth her through the night. Viktor had been lucky not to be thrown out of the household then and there.
Morgiana, however, only gave him an amused look. “I think I know better than you what the Princess likes.”
Viktor’s eyes narrowed. Was that a challenge? A threat? A boast? A reminder that no matter what, she would always be the Princess’s favoured servant? Because Viktor knew that there were many ways that could change.
“What are you two talking about?” Oh and naturally, Lucinda had chosen this time to become interested in what they were saying.
“Just servant things.” Morgiana said, not breaking eye contact with Viktor as she straightened up. “Oh, that reminds me Princess. I received a new report on the Rose Garden from the Head Gardener, if you’d like to hear it?”
Lucinda’s let out a petulant sigh. “If I must.” She glanced at Viktor. “I suppose you probably have things you should be doing as well. You have my permission to leave.”
Viktor managed to conceal the twitch in his eye. Instead, he rose to his feet and bowed deeply. “If that is your will, milady.”
“It is.” Lucinda waved her hand dismissively. She hesitated. “Although… I wouldn’t mind hearing a little more about You-Know-What later tonight, mind you? Once everyone else has gone to bed?”
Viktor felt a smile sneak its way back onto his lips. “I would be happy to, your grace.”
He savoured the feeling of triumph as a flicker of annoyance appeared on Morgiana’s face. Still, the dark-skinned servant recovered admirably as she began her usual report on the goings-on of the Lucce’s (or more accurately Lucinda’s) enormous private garden. Viktor naturally tuned out her droning on the state of the Petunias and how the Winter Flowers were prospering and whether or not that herbal remedy was helping to push back that weed infestation that had popped up a couple of weeks ago in the Pond Grove and so on so forth.
Instead, he thought on his prize and how close he was to achieving his goal. He could tell the Princess was almost in his grasp, it wouldn’t take much more of a push to persuade her to come with him out to the city in hopes of meeting her ‘mysterious criminal suitor’. From then, it would merely be a matter of getting her out of the city and putting her to ransom. Or possibly selling her to any interested bidders after a Princess from the Lucce family. Dynasty Gifted were often well wanted as breeding stock, after all.
A loud raucous laughter sounded from behind him. Viktor resisted the urge to smile himself.
Just a little while longer. Then that bratty princess would have something to really worry about.
“Trinite is not happy with you.” A deep voice growled from the darkness.
Viktor nearly jumped out of his skin, fumbling for a nearby candle. As he held the meagre light source out in front of him, an enormous scaled hand reached out of the darkness and gently extinguished the flame, pinching it between two clawed fingers. The room plunged once more into darkness, giving Viktor a good idea of who he was dealing with here.
“L-Lord Draug.” He cleared his throat and tried to regain his composure. “What are you- Ahem. I wasn’t expecting to find you in my room tonight.”
Draug didn’t bother to answer the implied question. “Trinite wants to know why you’re taking so long.”
Viktor winced. He probably should’ve seen this coming. After all, there’d been a fair amount of rumbling in the underworld lately. Diamondback and Trinite had both come to blows after a trade meeting went wrong and now the two gangs, Cutgems and Rogues both, were in low-key warfare, with Musk’s forces waiting in the wings for a chance to strike at a weakened competitor.
And of course, while Viktor normally wouldn’t have paid much attention to said goings-on provided it didn’t affect him personally (or possibly might even had encouraged them if he could get something useful out of it), Trinite’s involvement complicated things. After all, time and effort the young crime lord spent watching and waiting for Viktor was time and effort that could be used elsewhere. And only a fool took his eyes off a known conman. And whatever else he was, Trinite was no fool.
Still, maybe there was a way that Viktor could talk his way out of this problem.
“Well, Lord Trinite should know that you can’t rush a good job.” Viktor tried to inject a bit more easy charm into his voice. “This things take time if you want them done properly. After all, there are so many potential prizes that picking the right one requires a significant amount of-”
A snarl was the only warning Viktor got before a wave of hot air burst over his face. He tried to wave the unpleasant heat away, only for an enormous claw to reach out from the darkness and grab him by the neck, before dragging him forward until he was face to face with Draug. The dragon Gifted’s face was mostly concealed by the snarling dragon helm, but he could see the glow of red-hot heat behind the scales of the man and the furious glow of his eyes.
“You. Have. Had. Time.” Draug snarled into Viktor’s face. “Two months of time. And you tell me haven’t even decided on a target yet?” A plume of hot air shot from his nostrils. “You’ve had enough time to decide. Pick or I pick for you.” The grip tightened around Viktor’s neck.
Viktor didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Instead he put all his effort into appearing as small and tiny as possible in the face of the towering dragon who had him in his claws. Still, from the look on Draug’s face, he wasn’t going to let go until he got an answer he was satisfied with. Viktor’s mind whirled with possibilities and suggestions. What could he say to possibly convince Trinite? What prize would possibly justify taking so long? What could he-”
“Th-The Starlight Breastplate!” He squawked quickly. “I’m planning on stealing the Starlight Breastplate!”
Draug paused, seemingly genuinely surprised at the answer. “The Starlight Breastplate?” He tilted his large scaly head in a gesture of contemplation. “That would be an…audacious target.”
Audacious wasn’t the half of it. The Starlight Breastplate was part of Grandfather Dynasty’s original suit of armour, during his time as one of the Seven Precursors and in his reign as King of Stochelia. When he stepped down into retirement-in-all-but-name and passed defacto rule of his lands into the hands of the Seven Families, he gave each of them a part of his armour as symbol of their right to rule. The Lucce family, who had inherited powers of the light, received the Starlight Breastplate, a glimmering piece of armour that constantly glowered with an ethereal white light.
Stealing it would be like stealing a King’s Crown. No wonder Draug was apprehensive.
Viktor suddenly felt his legs drop out from beneath him. Draug had released his grip on Viktor’s collar, leaving the conman to fall sprawling onto the floor, coughing violently. If the dragon was concerned for Viktor’s wellbeing, he certainly didn’t show it as he paced back and forth, his expression deep in thought.
“If you manage to… successfully steal the breastplate, we might be most interested in purchasing it from you.” Draug said, his voice a low rumble. “Trinite might even consider reducing his personal fee for this job.”
“That would be…” Viktor coughed and rubbed his bruised throat. “…most generous of him.”
“How long until you do the job?” Draug asked.
“Well, it’s a complicated process to pull off.” Viktor bluffed, getting to his feet and dusting off his clothes. “Getting every single factor right, making sure attention isn’t on me, making sure the right guards are on patrol…” He shrugged. “It could take anything up to two weeks, maybe a month to-gak!” He was cut off by Draug grabbing him around the throat.
“You have three days.” Draug snarled. “Acceptable?”
Viktor nodded desperately, kicking and choking in the dragon’s iron grip. Satisfied, Draug released him, leaving Viktor to collapse in a heap onto the floor once more.
“Once you’ve finished your heist, bring the prize to Warehouse 5 in the Stacks.” The dragon rumbled as he turned to leave. “Don’t try to leave the city before then. I’ll know.” His lips curled, revealing rows of sharp teeth. “And I don’t think I need to explain what’ll happen if you try to doublecross us.”
Coughing Viktor rose to his feet and brushed off his shirt. “I think I’ve been in this business long enough to get the gist of it. Needless to say, Lord Trinite has no need to worry about my trustworthiness. I always honour my agreements to the letter.” Unless they were made at swordpoint, obviously. Or dragonpoint. Or if they were just inconvenient, to be honest. But of course Trinite didn’t need to know that.
“If you say so.” Draug’s lips rose in a smirk. “Oh, and Blacktongue?”
Viktor’s back instinctively straightened. “Yes?”
There was a startling crash as Draug’s hand lashed out and gripped the doorframe of the main door leading into Viktor’s room. An unsettling creaking and crackling noise echoed through the room as Draug slowly increased his grip tighter and tighter.
“I just want you to know that I won’t be upset if you decide to backstab us.” There was the sound of splintering wood as spiderweb cracks appeared in the doorframe. “On the contrary…” Crash! A chunk of the doorframe came away in his hands. “…I’ll enjoy it immensely.”
Viktor swallowed. “Understood.”
Draug took one last look back at the terrified conman and snorted, before slamming the door behind him, nearly breaking it off his hinges. The door swung there slowly back and forth, the damage only highlighted by the ruined doorframe surrounding it.
With shaking legs, Viktor lowered himself down onto his bed. There was absolutely no doubt as to what all that was about. A warning. A way for Trinite to remind him who held the reins in this relationship. And that as long as Viktor was in this city, he was under Trinite’s thumb and did things to Trinite’s specifications.
Viktor’s fist clenched. Trinite thought he was so smart, did he? Well, he made one fatal mistake.
He’d set Viktor a time limit.
Oh, certainly it made sense from a certain point of view. Force Viktor to move, one way or another, before the three days were up. And there was no doubt Trinite would have his agents watch Viktor on that last day to make certain he didn’t try and double-cross him. But one of the reasons Viktor considered himself such a great conman was that he knew how people thought. By setting him a three day time-limit, Trinite had also set up the expectation within his own mind that Viktor would only act either on that third day or towards the end of the second. Thus, if Viktor acted outside that expectation…
The pieces of a brand new plan quickly assembled themselves within Viktor’s mind. He felt a smile creep onto his face.
Yes. Trinite was expecting him to take his time, to not move until the three days were up. He certainly wouldn’t be expecting Viktor to move so boldly and so early.
Forget three days. He was going to kidnap the Princess Lucinda tonight.
“You mean the Baron Trinite wants to meet me in person?!” Lucinda exclaimed in disbelief.
“Yes.” Viktor nodded, trying not to show impatient he was. “He has heard of your beauty from afar and now wants nothing more than do see your incomparable visage for himself. He’s waiting for you alone at the Docks in a secret area and instructed me to bring you there.”
“Oh my!” Lucinda blushed and clutched her cheeks. “How… How sudden! I’m not ready! Oh, this is all such a-”
“Forgive me for interrupting, my Princess.” Viktor said quickly. “But this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Baron Trinite does not often show himself in public. If you miss this chance then you might never get another one again. You have to go.”
“R-R-Right.” The princess seemed visibly flustered at the suddenness of it all. Just as Viktor had planned, forcing her to make an on-the-spot decision made it more likely for her to go alone. “You’re right, Viktor. I have to do this. Now, we just need to find a way out of the castle and-”
“Already taken care of, my princess.” Viktor said. “I know a secret passage out of the castle that we can take.”
Actually, he knew of several. It was fairly well known to most people that before Whitewing City became the domain of the Lucce Family, it actually belonged as a vassal-city of the Tierra Family and their numerous earth-style Gifted. After the Tierra’s ended up on the losing side of the War of Blood and Talent, a major civil war fought between the ruling families of Stochelia, their main territory was moved to the less-appealing city of Stonebasin and parts of their previous lands was given to the Lucce’s as repayment for the loss of their original capital city Whitemark in the fighting.
The point to all this was that, as a result of being a Tierra-built city, the entire harbour had a large number of underground tunnels and canals. And while these were mostly located in the main city itself, the actual main castle of Whitewing had a significant number of secret underground passages that even the Lucce family didn’t know about. It hadn’t taken Viktor long to sniff out one that best suited his purposes and led from the castle grounds to the cellar of a nearby tavern.
“I also have a horse and carriage on standby outside.” Viktor continued. “It should get us down to the docks in good time. But we need to leave right now if we are to make it.”
“Very well.” Lucinda rose to her feet, attempting to compose herself with royal dignity. “As you say Viktor. Let us leave posthaste to meet with my beloved.”
Viktor bowed deeply as he held the door open for the princess, barely having to try to conceal the deep smirk behind his black cloak. This was almost too easy.
It was true that someone was waiting for the Princess at the Docks. However, it wasn’t the Baron Trinite. It was a handful of thugs that Viktor had paid off to help him snatch the princess. Once she was bound and gagged tightly and stuffed into a shipping crate, she’d be loaded onto a cargo ship, whose captain Viktor had bribed, who would take them directly across the Palmed Sea to the continent of Leve, where Stochelian influence was low and where Viktor could easily find a sea of potential buyers for a young and intact Princess of Dynastic Blood. Emperor Gier, Stalwall, Experimentor, the Brothers of the Prism, all would pay big money for a prize like this. Heck, if he was feeling kind, he might accept the money to ransom her back to her family.
Of course, if he wasn’t feeling kind, he might sell her to Kazar Kaan, the King of the Ashy Mountains, whose hatred for all things Dynastic knew absolutely no bound. He wasn’t entirely sure what kind of fate would await the young Princess if he sold her to that man, but Viktor imagined it would be painful. And short.
So caught up was Viktor in his vindictive thoughts of torture and revenge that he almost walked straight into the princess when she stopped suddenly in the middle of the corridor.
“Morgiana!” Lucinda exclaimed.
Viktor immediately straightened up and looked around. That meddlesome servant wasn’t here was she? If she tattled to High Prince Northstar-
“We can’t leave without Morgiana!”
Oh. Viktor sank slightly with relief. But his mind quickly whirled into action. He needed to keep that wench from getting involved, otherwise his plans would almost certainly be ruined. After all, the servant wasn’t remotely stupid enough to fall for the same trickery that the Princess had.
“Are you sure it’s wise to involve your handmaiden in this?” Viktor asked. “After all, if she were to inform your father, then-”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that.” Lucinda insisted. “Morgiana would never ever think of betraying me. So long as you explain the situation properly to her, I’m sure she’ll understand perfectly what she needs to do.”
Viktor held back a scowl. It wasn’t the Princess that he was worried she would betray.
Still, there was an opportunity in this. Certainly, it would likely tip the castle guards off sooner but, by the time they’d figured out what was going on, he and the Princess should be far out of the city.
“As you say, milady.” Viktor bowed slyly. “I will go and fetch your handmaiden, as you requested. In the meantime, please wait here, out of sight of the guards. It would not do to have them find us too early.”
Lucinda nodded, a simpering naive smile on her face. Viktor could barely hold back his scorn. Maybe he’d show that fussy bitch what the real world was like once they were all on the boat. First of all, though, he had to make a quick visit to the kitchens.
Then, after that, he could deal with a certain meddlesome servant once and for all.
It didn’t take him long to find Morgiana. The dark-skinned servant had a fairly regular schedule that she kept to fairly closely. At this time of night, she was usually preparing fresh linen and setting it out for the house staff the next day. And so it was that Viktor found her walking down the corridor with an enormous hamper of linen in her arms. A small part of him was impressed at how easily the misleadingly lithe servant girl could carry around such a heavy load.
Not that it would matter too long, mind.
“You need to talk to me in private?” Morgiana frowned at his words. “What about?”
“It’s the Princess.” Viktor shuffled his feet slightly, doing his best impression of a worried but cautious caretaker. “It’s… Well, it’s difficult to explain. But I don’t want to do it out in the open where anyone might be watching. Do you have a private place we can talk?”
Morgiana was silent for a moment, dissecting him with those frighteningly intelligent hazel eyes. Then she nodded. “There’s a small laundry room I sometimes use. Nobody should disturb us there.”
“Excellent. That will do.”
Viktor let Morgiana lead the way, keeping a careful watch for guards. He did his very best not to show his apprehension show or, to be exact, to make sure right kind of apprehension was shown, that of concern for one’s mistress. He wasn’t certain whether or not Morgiana actually bought it, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that she didn’t get tipped off until it was too late.
Eventually, they reached the laundry room that Morgiana had mentioned. And small was certainly the right way to describe it. It was tiny, with barely enough room for 3 or 4 people to stand. The shelves was stacked high with piles of laundry. Sheets, covers, tableclothes, servant clothes and so on. It was secluded, quiet and, from the looks of things, Morgiana had the only key.
It was perfect.
“So.” Morgiana said, locking the door and turning to face Viktor. “What did you want to talk ab-?”
Morgiana never finished her sentence as Viktor drew the kitchen knife from his sleeve and rammed it deep into her belly. The servant’s eyes widened in surprise and she staggered back, hands clutching to her stomach. Red quickly stained her servant’s uniform as Viktor smoothly withdrew the knife. Viktor could see the look of shock and pain on Morgiana’s face and took a moment to savour her suffering.
That was when she headbutted him.
Viktor’s vision exploded into stars as blinding pain shot through his nose and face. This time, he was the one to stagger back, leaving Morgiana room to charge forward and grab him across the head. Viktor let out a yell as sharp fingernails scratched across his skin, one very nearly clipping his eye. He lashed out with his knife, plunging it into Morgiana’s side again and again. Shelves crashed and broke as the two staggered around the tiny room, locked in desperate combat.
Eventually, it was Viktor who managed to get the upper hand, pushing the surprisingly strong handmaiden away from him. But not before Morgiana had managed to sink her teeth into Viktor’s ear, ripping a not insignificant chunk of it away with her. Spitting the bloody flesh from her mouth, Morgiana prepared to charge again, but Viktor was faster. He struck out with the knife with lightning speed and plunged it deep into Morgiana’s neck.
Startled, the handmaiden staggered back, gurgling blood from her neck and mouth. Viktor didn’t even bother trying to remove the knife. It was stuck so deeply in her throat that there would be little point. Morgiana rocked back and forth, blood spilling out and covering what little of her uniform that had remained unstained. For a second, from the look in her eyes, Viktor thought she was going to charge him again. But instead, she collapsed onto the ground, like a puppet with its strings cut.
Relieved, Viktor leaned back onto the broken shelves. His legs grew weak as the adrenaline began to leave him and the slow dull ache of his bruised face began to register. Gods, why did his ear hurt so much? And why did his broken nose smell like burning? Did he have a concussion or something? He hoped not. That would be inconvenient.
Slowly, his brain managed to regain order and he staggered back to his feet and towards the downed servant. To his amazement, she still seemed to be breathing, her chest slowly rising up and down, but it was clear she wasn’t long for this world. With a groan, he slowly leaned down and fished around in her pockets for the key to the laundry room.
“Nothing personal.” He said to the barely breathing servant. He paused. “Well, okay, that’s a lie. I hated your guts from the moment I met you. So that would make this very personal.” Eventually, he found the key he was looking for and held it up in triumph. “Just to let you know, I look forward to having my men rape and mutilate the hell out of your imbecilic Princess.”
Morgiana could barely move her head to look at him. Her face was pale and bloodstained. But the look of absolute hatred in those eyes was not something that could be mistaken.
“Sssh.” Viktor whispered, slowly turning her head away from him. “It’ll all be over soon.” For a moment, he considered giving her a mercy stroke. Then he caught a glimpse of his ruined face in the reflection of a polished silver button.
Nah. Let the bitch suffer.
Using one of the cleaner sheets to wipe the worst of the blood off his face, Viktor took a closer look at his reflection and winced. She really had done a number on him. Claw marks ran down the side of his face, his nose was at a wrong angle and much of the bottom half of his ear was missing. He could only hope that no-one ran into him on his way back to the Princess, otherwise no amount of explanations would be able to save him.
Taking a moment to first patch up the worst of his wounds, Viktor exited the laundry room and locked it behind. Then, making sure no-one was around, he crept up to a window and dropped the key out of it, watching it fall with a clink into a gutter. Good. That should buy him time before the body’s discovering.
In the meantime, he had a princess to ‘attend’ to.
“What in Shinestar’s name happened to your face?” Lucinda exclaimed as Viktor arrived back at the hiding place he’d stashed her.
Viktor coughed and put on his best look of piety. He’d had enough time on the walk back to come up with an excuse. “I’m sorry to say, Princess, but a guard came across myself and Morgiana while we were discussing your escape. We were forced to subdue him before he alerted your father and I’m afraid I took a few minor wounds in service of you.”
“My goodness!” Lucina’s hands rose to her mouth. “And what about Morgiana? Is she okay?”
“Quite fine, my princess.” Viktor lied. “She decided to stay behind and cover for you by distracting the other guards. She told me that she supports your plan utterly though and hopes that the meeting with your beloved goes well.”
“Oh really?” Lucinda seemed surprised. “Well, trust Morgiana to do something so sensible. “ She put a single finger on her chin in thought. “Although I don’t know if I’m quite comfortable going to meet this man without my favourite handmaiden…”
Viktor’s fist clenched beneath his cloak. You stupid stubborn bitch, just stop wasting time and go. He didn’t want to have to try and subdue the princess in the castle, in case she screamed and brought the entire garrison down on his head, but he would if he had to. He wasn’t leaving this stinkhole without at least some kind of prize.
“Still, I suppose Morgiana must’ve thought it safe enough for me to go alone.” Lucinda finished. “So it would be foolish of me not to respect her sacrifice. Lead on, Viktor.”
Viktor let out a sigh of relief. The plan was finally back on track. All he had to do was lead her to the horsecart, get down to the Docks and the prize was as good as his.
Nothing could stop him now.
Naturally, it took about 20 minutes for everything to go horrendously wrong.
“Blacktongue.” Draug growled, stepping closer to the carriage. “Funny I should meet you here.”
Viktor swallowed. Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Things had just gone from bad to deadly.
It was especially annoying because things had been going fairly well thus far. He’d successfully led Princess Lucinda through the tunnels, to where the horse and carriage were waiting. The princess had naturally complained about the low quality of the carriage Viktor had chosen, but he had managed to persuade her that it was necessarily to keep a low front went travelling in the city.
The journey itself had also been mostly uneventful. Viktor had picked his route well, deliberately avoiding the most dodgy and cutthroat areas of the city, as well as roads which were patrolled by the city guards. And so it was that they’d made it through the city with no incident and almost no witnesses to boot. The docks were in sight and Viktor could practically smell his newfound freedom and fortune on the air.
That was when Draug had dropped from the sky like an angry fireball and the entire plan had promptly gone to shit.
The dragon had picked his spot well, an old empty road surrounded by abandoned warehouses. There was no obvious sign of life for at least a few blocks and Viktor was willing to bet that anyone who actually was in close proximity right now was probably one of Trinite’s men.
As for Draug himself, he was already several feet taller than he was when confronting Viktor in his room (the dragon’s size changing abilities being well known in the city) and his arms had already ignited with a steady yellow flame. The paved stone road cracked beneath his feet as he landed and he lashed out with both hands, grabbing the two startled horses by the reins and forcing them still.
Oh, and he looked angry. Very angry.
Fortunately, Viktor was not the sort of man to go to pieces the second a hiccup appeared in his plan and he was very good at bluffing on the fly.
“Sir Draug!” He said cheerfully. “What a coincidence to see you here! Why, I was just enjoying myself with a pleasant nighttime horse ride alone. You know how I enjoy my horse-rides?”
From the look on Draug’s face, he didn’t buy it for a second. “What’s in the carriage?”
“The carriage?” Viktor pretended to play ignorant. “Oh that. That’s needed for tomorrow morning, so I decided to save myself some time and keep it attached now. It’s quite empty, I can assure you.”
“Viktor!” Lucinda’s shrill voice naturally chose that time to shoot through the air. “Who’s that you’re talking to? Is it my beloved? Oh, I can’t want to meet him if that’s the case. Wait for me, my beloved Baron Trinite!”
Viktor shot an irritated look at the carriage and the idiot princess who had just unintentionally screwed him over. In the corner of his eye, however, he was surprised to see Draug doing the exact same thing, although his look seemed more exasperated than angry.
“Alright, you got me. I was just joking with you.” Viktor said, quickly changing his tone. “It’s actually the Princess Lucinda in the carriage. I couldn’t get the Starlight Breastplate, like we originally planned, but I successfully tricked her into coming out alone with me. In fact, I was just on my way to deliver her to the Baron Trinite like you requested.”
Draug paused. He looked at Viktor. Then he looked towards the Stacks, the area of town where Viktor had been instructed to bring his ‘prize’. Then he looked towards the Docks, the area of town Viktor had clearly been heading towards that, coincidentally enough, happened to be in the exact opposite direction of the Stacks. Then he looked back to Viktor, his eyes narrowed.
“Aheh.” Viktor felt his collar grow damp. “I can understand why you might be suspicious, but you see I wasn’t betraying you or anything. On the contrary, I was merely taking a roundabout route to throw off pursuers and trackers, you see? If anything I was making certain that the prize was even safer for Baron Trinite.”
Draug was silent for a moment. Then he spoke with a gravelly tone. “You know, for someone who’s supposed to be a conman, you’re a terrible liar.”
If he wasn’t so terrified, Viktor might almost have been affronted by that. He was an excellent liar, thank you very much. Just because events kept conspiring to screw him over big time didn’t mean he was incompetent. On the contrary, nobody else would have been able to pull off a con like his, not even if they had all the Gods of Fortune on their side.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect a glorified thug like you to understand all the intricacies of such a plan.” Viktor said, changing tacks and putting on a haughty demeanour. Perhaps he could make it through this by reminding Draug of his place and kicking the issue up the foodchain. “But if you take me to Baron Trinite and let me explain it, then I’m certain the Lord Baron will understand why I did what I did perfectly.”
Draug was silent for a moment. There was an odd look in his eyes that Viktor could only describe as barely disguised glee. “You want to see Baron Trinite?”
“Well, I think I deserve a chance to plead my case.” Viktor said. He nodded towards the carriage. “As well as deliver my prize.”
Draug licked his lips, revealing a grin of razor-sharp teeth. “You’ve already met Baron Trinite today. And I doubt they’d be as impressed with your prize as you think.”
Viktor’s face dropped into a frown. “What do you mean?”
Draug reached into the folds of his scaly armour and drew out a small metallic fragment of something. He raised his enormous claw-like arm and tossed the piece to Viktor, who clumsily caught it, before immediately letting out a yelp and juggling the red-hot metal in his hands. However, when the metal cooled down enough for him to take a look, he realised it was the crushed and mangled remains of a knife, much like the steak knife Draug had destroyed before his eyes on the night that they first met.
“Why are you showing me this?” Viktor asked.
Draug rolled his eyes. “Look closer. Does it look familiar?”
Viktor blinked. Then he raised the crushed knife to his eyes and peered closer. Seconds later, a realization hit him like a thunderbolt.
This wasn’t just a normal knife. This was a kitchen knife. The very same kitchen knife that he had used to knife Morgiana, that meddlesome handmaiden.
A flurry of pieces clicked together in his mind like a jigsaw puzzle. The strange intelligence in Morgiana’s eyes. The way Trinite always kept his face and body as concealed as possible. The way Morgiana managed to predict and outmanouevre his attempts to frame her and get her fired from the household staff. The way Trinite seemed to know every move and schedule that the city guards would take, almost as if he had a man on the inside of the city’s ruling family. Morgiana’s unnerving strength and competence when fighting. All of which meant that… meant that…
“Morgiana the handmaiden was secretly Baron Trinite the whole time?” Viktor exclaimed in audible disbelief.
Draug blinked. He blinked again. Then he opened his mouth and a strange barking noise began to sound from it, filling the streets with with its eerie echo. It took Viktor a moment to realise that the giant dragon man was laughing. But why would he-?
“Oh come on.” A voice sounded from behind him. “It’s not that funny.”
Viktor whirled around in surprise. There, leaning out of the carriage towards him, was Princess Lucinda Lucce. Yet, simultaneously . . . it wasn’t.
Oh certainly, the Princess had the same basic physical appearance the same body types, the same clothes, yes, all that remained the same. But her body language had switched on a dime. The Princess he knew was haughty and posh, always puffing her chest out like a peacock in an attempt to seem grand and worthy of royalty. And it certainly to some degree worked, granting her an air of dignity and importance, but it always felt to some degree forced, like she was trying to hard to appear graceful.
Her body language now, on the other hand, was casual and relaxed, an amused smile spread on her face. The look of a person who wore their own skin like it was a perfect comfortable fit. And more than comfortable. Dangerous. Viktor had met a handful of people like that in his life. The sorts of people who didn’t need to put on a big show with their posture and body language and look to make themselves appear important. The sorts of people who knew they were important and dangerous and could snuff your life out in a minute without barely a care.
“P-Princess?” Viktor stuttered, his brain still trying process things. “You should get back in the carriage. It isn’t safe for you here.”
“Isn’t it?” Lucinda battered her eyelashes at him. But where the normal princess would’ve done such a thing in an overblown attempt to be seductive, this princess did so in an almost mocking way, with a look of fake innocence across her face. “On the contrary, I feel perfectly safe with my brave, gallant protector here to defend me.”
Viktor ground his teeth. “I appreciate the thought Princess, but there’s not much I can do against a Gifted like this.”
Lucinda let out an amused snort. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about you.”
Then, to Viktor’s surprise, the Princess turned to Draug and gracefully stretched out her hand. And, to Viktor’s astonishment, Draug stepped forward and gently took it in his arm before helping her down the carriage steps, much like a knight might accompany a beautiful maiden.
“My lady.” Draug said in his usual low growl.
“My knight.” Lucinda responded with a slight smile. She turned to Viktor’s gobsmacked expression and let out a slight chuckle. “What’s this, Blacktongue? No words or compliments? Why, it was only this morning you were telling me that I had the most beautiful blue eyes you’d ever seen.”
In spite of his shock, Viktor felt a frown cross his face. When had he said that? Lucinda Lucce quite clearly had green eyes. Everyone knew that Lucinda Lucce had green eyes. The only time he’d ever mentioned blue eyes in her presence was…
No no no no no no…
“At your service.” Lucinda bowed. Draug let out another of his huffing laughs.
“But… But, how?!” Viktor was flabbergasted. No matter how he tried, no matter how he attempted to wrap his mind around it, he just couldn’t reconcile the image of the naive bratty princess who he’d been grooming the past two months and the monstrous crime baron who half ruled Whitewing’s seedy underbelly. “How?!”
“Weeeelll…” Lucinda said, casually waving her hand. “When your father chooses not to let you do anything worthwhile with your life and instead leaves you alone and barely guarded in a big castle with quite a few undiscovered secret passages, you tend to pick up a few hobbies.” She shrugged. “Some women like gardening, some like handicraft, I like secretly running a criminal enterprise beneath everyone’s noses.” She tilted her head. “Why, what exactly did you think I was doing in the Rose Garden all day?”
Viktor’s jaw opened and closed fruitlessly. “And Morgiana?”
“Why, she’s right here in front of us.” Lucinda cheerfully patted Draug’s thick forearm. “Did it take you long to heal those stab wounds?”
Draug grunted. “I’ve had worse.” The dragon man… no, girl snorted at the look on Viktor’s face. “It didn’t exactly endear me to him any.”
Suddenly, Viktor’s brain shot into focus as he came to a startling realization. “You…You two both knew who I was all along! You were just playing me this entire time!”
Lucinda and Morgiana… Trinite and Draug both shrugged in unison. “More or less, yeah.”
“Why?” Viktor asked, anger seeping into his voice. “For your sick amusement?”
“Well, that was part of the reason I did it.” Lucinda said cheerfully, placing a hand on her own chest. “But I was also interested in seeing what exactly you were made of. After all, good help is very hard to find.”
Viktor hesitated. Could he use this? “And?”
“Hmm…” Lucinda waved her palm in an uncertain manner. “I’m mixed. I confess, you are definitely most impressive at your job. The tales you span, the poetry you used, why I almost ended up falling for myself even more than I already have.” That smirk on her face widened. “But, as for your loyalty…”
Viktor immediately dropped to one knee. “My lady, I swear I will be perfectly loyal to you, should you choose to spare my life.”
Lucinda raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Really? Because where I’m standing, you were planning on double-crossing both of my identities at the same time. That sort of thing rather gives a lady trust issues, don’t you agree Draug?”
Draug snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Well, I am a conman, my lady.” Viktor argued. “It is in my nature to lie and trick. But it is also in my nature to serve my own best interests and have some degree of self-preservation. You’ve clearly got me in a strong bind, proven you can outsmart me completely and utterly and have enough riches and resources to make working for you very palatable indeed.” His smooth smile slowly returned as his confidence did. “Aren’t the history books filled with stories of once vanquished enemies choosing to join with the heroes and become their loyal allies?”
“Ohohoho.” Lucinda chuckled into her hand. “You are certainly a very gutsy one indeed, Blacktongue. Your name is very well deserved.” Her smile vanished. “But we both know our line of work isn’t like the stories. And, as useful as your employment might be to my interests, unfortunately, you’re far too talented and far too untrustworthy for me to consider keeping you. Draug, if you would?”
Viktor turned to run, but Draug was faster. Moving a surprising speed for her bulk, the dragon Gifted charged forward and grabbed Viktor around the head with a single enormous claw. Viktor tried to fight and struggle, but her grip was like iron and it was all he could do to merely dangle from her hand like a bauble.
“It really is a shame.” Trinite said, walking closer to the struggling conman. “If you had kept to your side of the bargain, I would’ve been happy to accept your employment. But the fact is, you got greedy. You got cocky. You got overconfident and underestimated people far smarter and better than you.” She leaned in close. “Why, I bet you didn’t even bother to try and find out my Gift, did you?”
Draug’s grip loosened just enough for the terrified Viktor to awkwardly shake his head.
“Well, needless to say you wouldn’t even have bothered trying to trick me had you known it.” Trinite said. “Why it would’ve been as fruitless as… say… trying to attack Draug with a kitchen knife.”
Viktor heard a disgruntled noise behind him.
“Yes yes, I know.” Trinite rolled her eyes. “But my point is, Viktor, there’s one other factor that made me decide against sparing you. Not your disloyalty, not your cowardice, not the scornful looks you shot at me behind my back that you thought I did notice, no no.” She shook her head. “You’re missing something. One feature that sets the truly Gifted Criminal Masterminds aside from the chaff.”
“You mean a Gift?” Viktor managed to spit, even with his head trapped as it was. His voice was filled with contempt. “You shitty bitch, you think just because you were lucky enough to be born with superpowers you’re better than me? I worked harder than anyone to get where I was today and I did it all without a lousy cheat. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be sitting pretty and you’d be sold off as a breeder sow to some fat perverted rich fuck across the sea. So how would you enjoy that crap?”
If Trinite was insulted by Viktor’s outburst, she certainly didn’t show it. Instead she shook her head and let out a disappointed tutting sound. “On the contrary, Blacktongue, I never even needed my Gift to outsmart you. And that diatribe only proved my point.” She grabbed Viktor’s bloodied chin and lifted it slightly. “You lack class, Viktor. And my city deserves only the best class of criminal.”
With that, she dropped Viktor’s chin and turned to walk away. “He’s all yours, Draug. Feel free to… what was it he intended to have done to me again?”
“Rape and mutilate, my lady.” Draug growled. “Probably murder too once he was finished.”
“Hmm.” Trinite paused. “Well, I do like to consider myself a woman with standards. And it would dreadfully uncouth to have anyone raped under my orders.”
“And the mutilation and murder?” Draug asked.
That infuriating smirk returned. “Well, I never said I had that many standards.”
Viktor heart leaped out of his chest as the grip around his head began to tighten. “Wait, my princess! Please!”
The last thing Viktor heard before the pressure grew unbearable was Draug’s mocking laugh.
“I told you I’d enjoy this, Blacktongue.”
Then there was a crunch and everything went dark.