“I totally believe this coat is magic, because the blood just washes right off,” I remarked to myself in the wash room. I had to ruin a towel in the process, but since it wasn’t mine I could care less. I also took the opportunity of the bathroom to check myself over for damage. I had a red mark on my chest where I’d been elbowed by Nigeman and some sore ribs. My left arm had a mark that was already bruising where I’d almost been cut by the sword. Other than the adrenaline crash after the fight, I was otherwise unharmed.
“Magic~ Coat~,” I sang to myself like I was an infomercial as I opened the door and walked out of Nigeman’s private bathroom. Which even in this nice place was a chamberpot affair. “Okay guys, you’re up.”
As I said that, two of my soldiers saluted and entered the bathroom. Shortly after, there was the sound of crashing as they started tearing apart everything inside the bathroom, including the walls. I took the opportunity to inspect the bedroom that had previously been torn up by the fight, and was now trashed beyond recognition.
“Find anything,” I asked as I walked up to the only soldier left in the room that could have been Essea. Everyone still had their helmets on, so I couldn’t be positive. Ah, she’s holding a nice looking box in her hands.
“Oh, yes, sir. There seems to be a safe under the carpet over here. There was also a box in the closet with formal jewelry. I don’t think we found anything else of value in the bedroom, though..”
I nodded and said, “Ah, so it was you, Essea. Welcome back.”
“Uh… thank you, sir?”
“Welcome. Whelp, let’s crack this thing open.”
I took a closer look at my target. It was a circular panel floor safe. Combination dial with 100 numbers on it. The dial was flat, and there was a handle sunk into an indentation in the armored panel. Everything about this safe was designed to be hardy and keep everyone and everything from springing it open, while keeping every feature as flat as possible. Heh, even the hinges were sunken into the front panel. I dare say, from an engineering standpoint, this thing was a work of art designed to be hidden under a fancy rectangular carpet. Now, to destroy it.
“How… are you going to do that, sir? I don’t think we have the equipment for that…”
“Oh, the same way as I did last time. By… actually, you know what? Let’s try something different.”
I remember that I had to put a LOT of effort into opening the safe in Lumpy’s bedroom. That was because I was exerting force on it from the outside, and safes are designed to fight against exactly that. But they’re not designed to ward off force exerted from the inside.
I released my magic into the air and directed it down. My senses expanded, and I felt the air, the floor, and the metal of the safe. I infused my magic into the safe, and past it, into the air that was within the safe. Once my magic was reaching into the thing’s internals, I could feel the displacement of air within, designating objects inside. I solidified some of the air to a hard enough constitution to push these objects aside and make some room in the center of the safe’s bottom. I put more magic into the safe, and accumulated it into the form of a cylinder that had both ends touching the bottom of the safe and the underside of the safe’s armored panel. Then, I slowly started increasing the height.
The basic idea was like that of a carjack. I ramped magic into the cylinder to give it more pressure against the underside of the armored panel, one pump of magic at a time. It worked out surprisingly well, as my magic-jack gained purchase and began making headway on the panel. Before long, the panel of the safe groaned, then started to deform, before finally popping open with a bang. A pretty loud bang, too. To my credit, I didn’t really jump when it happened, but I did wince a bit. Essea, though, I don’t think she even flinched. I might be wrong, but I think I heard a gasp of admiration come from her. She also spent the whole time I was working my magic (I never thought I would say that in an un-ironic statement) staring at the safe, as though she could tell what I was doing. Well, that would make her the first one aside from myself. And she didn’t even exclaim “impossible” while I was doing it. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.
“Alright, let’s see what we have here,” I said as I scooped out the safe’s contents. I righted the breakfast table and it’s chair, sat, and invited Essea to take the other chair. When she did, I said, “The helmet too, please. Make yourself comfortable.”
“Are you sure?”
“The combat is over and I prefer looking people in the face. Please.”
She did so, looking a bit uncomfortable in the doing, and she sat rigidly. I didn’t know anyone could sit at attention, but I think she did. …She probably regarded me as an authority figure, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Ah, well.
I dumped the contents of the bags I’d pulled out of Nigeman’s safe and poured them onto the table, carefully. The larger bag held a lot of Sul coins. There was a lot of silver coins there, but all the rest were the whole Sul coins. Not a single one was gold. The smaller bag held gemstones. The sizes and cuts were inferior to the ones from Lumpy’s safe, but there was a lot of them all the same. But then again, does every dickweed in this world have a bug out stash of cash? Is it a world where you need to be ready to flee with a sack of gold at a moment’s notice? But ya know, it said a lot to his credit that Nigeman went for his sword and armor first instead of his wad of cash. Still didn’t make him a halfway decent person, though.
“Well, okay then,” I said mostly to myself, then addressed Essea. “I’ll pack up the Sul, you repack the gems, okay?”
“Is that really okay sir?!”
The hell? Essea’s jumpy exclamation was so reactive and hurried that it felt like there wasn’t even any punctuation in it. Essea’s eyes were goggled and she really seemed quite shocked.
“Yeah,” I said carefully. “Is there some problem?”
“No, no! Sir! I just… I just, I’ve never seen so much money before. It’s- it’s really… I dunno…”
“Uh, yes, sir. Imposing. I’m imposed, sir.”
…Essea may have something of an inferiority complex. And she kinda flailed her arms around a little when she was flustered. Let’s hope it didn’t go from cute to annoying.
“It’s fine Essea, please help me with this.”
Essea’s hands trembled a little as she helped me with the packing. After that, I told her to carry the bags and men’s jewelry directly to Janette for inventory. I plopped the bags into Essea’s helmet for easy transport and had her carry it like a bucket. Essea was trembling and overly tense as she carried the plunder out of the room. I couldn’t help but find it funny and cute. She may make my sadistic tendencies flare up from time to time. Let’s hope I don’t make her life too miserable.
As I was watching Essea’s back disappear through the bedroom door, heading for the stairs, the two soldiers who’d been wrecking things in the bathroom came out and reported that they’d finished. Nothing of value found.
“In that case, gather up Nigeman’s clothes. I’m claiming those as plunder as well,” I replied, indicating the articles strewn on the ground in piles.
“His clothes, sir?”
“Yeah. We’ll need as much civilian clothing as we can get in the near future.”
I left the pair of soldiers to it as I stood up and arbitrarily flipped over the breakfast table onto a pile of rubble that had once been wall plaster. Exiting the bedroom, I walked down the hall until I got called out to by another soldier. Uhhh, Zent? He found another box of man jewelry in- what?
“The son’s room. Nigeman’s son.”
“Nigeman had a kid?”
Wow, I was starting to feel like a bastard now. No one said Nigeman was a father.
“Uh, yes, sir. You saw him before.”
“When you broke his nose, sir.”
Oh! That guy! Dude was a full ass adult. He was still living with his father? Is it that mafioso leeching kinda thing? Pampered as long as he stayed near the money? Okay, no longer feeling bad.
“Well, take the jewelry, but leave him his clothes.”
“Uh. O-Kaaaay. I mean, yes, sir!”
I proceeded to the other end of the top floor and poked my head in. Turned out the room was a study or office. There was a desk with papers on top of it and in the opened drawers that the person who was rifling through them had abandoned as unimportant. But seriously…
“What the hell are you doing here, Mercy?” I demanded.
“Hmm? Well, I thought I might be able to help somehow,” she said, turning her head up from studying the papers in the desk. “And I think I have. I’ve found some papers that appear to be a set of balance books, with payment notations. Nothing specific, and I’m not actually sure if all the numbers add up, but some of the initials appear like they may denote specific people or organizations. Or maybe other criminal networks? Or bribes! Oh, wait, this one is for a tailor. Maybe? I think I’ll need to start over from the beginning. Umm… where was the beginning again…”
I stepped forward and interrupted Mercy, asking, “Mercy, how did you get those, and do you have any idea how to read them?”
“Oh, they were in the locked drawer of this desk. Dellon over there broke it open for me when I asked him to.”
Dellon turned to wave from his position in front of the bookcase where he was checking books to see if they were hollow and then dumping them on the ground.
“And as for being able to make sense of the books, I think I’m getting somewhere. You see this red ink? I think it means it’s an illegal income, because red is the color of blood. So it’s blood money, see?”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose hard, staving off a brain aneurysm. “Mercy,” I said trying to keep from slapping her upside the head. “Red ink means an outgoing payment. You can check it against the totals on the right side of the page.”
“Oh. Then no, I have no idea what I’m reading.”
I only somewhat harshly closed the book that Mercy was reading and said in a very strained gentleness, “Please help Dellon with going through the books. And anything that’s fiction, history, or education, too, I guess, I want those for myself.” She meant well this time, she really did.
“Then we’re gonna have a lot to pick up off the floor, I guess,” said Dellon over his shoulder. He then turned around and said, “We finished tearing the rest of the furniture apart in the room, and checked the walls. Gilda said nothing was in there, so we skipped breaking them open.” Oh, Gilda was the earth mage in the group. I guess there really was no point in ruining the plaster work if she could just magic sense the walls like that. “But there is a rather large safe in this room.”
Dellon pointed over towards it. It was a free standing pedestal safe that was half as large as a person and rectangular in shape with a combination dial lock and a handle. I turned towards Dellon and said, “You may wanna start with the safe next time, buddy.”
“Sure, whatever you say,” said Dellon mildly. Seemed he was casting off the rigor of the military faster than anyone else. I wasn’t sure yet if it was a good thing. But he didn’t seem to be holding a grudge for making him walk barefoot, so I guess it was fine. After finishing the small talk, I turned and opened the safe the same way I did with the floor safe. I heard Dellon’s voice go, “Whoa” and Mercy’s say, “Impossible!” Okay, yeah, I appreciated Essea’s quietly impressed reaction a lot more than that.
There were two big bags of coins inside and another ledger book. Okay, that one was probably the illegal one. The coins were all Sul coins, and a lot were small denominations. It was probably the raw cash gathered by Nigeman’s enforcers before it was split and shared out in paychecks to the minions and tributes to Lord Bowel. The nicer, hidden safe was probably Nigeman’s own personal stash. The man had probably been skimming off the top for a while now. But that’s none of my concern.
I lightly flipped through the book before tucking it under my arm and taking the large bags of Sul in hand. I decided I was going to deliver this shipment to Janette myself. With nothing left to do in the study, I turned and started to walk out when Essea ran into the room seemingly panicked. She immediately approached me and said, “The Garrison is here,” in that intense and meaningful way people use, as if the tone of voice conveyed everything.
But it was meaningful. “Here how,” I asked. “Are they attacking us?”
“No, no, not yet, but they’re asking a lot of questions of Gina and they’re getting angry!”
“Where are they?”
“Out front! They’re wanting us to turn over the building and our captives to them. They’re claiming jury’s diction!”
“Jurisdiction,” I automatically corrected. Damn it. I had a friend who used the wrong words all the time, so it’d become a habit.
I thought really hard for a moment. I couldn’t go out there myself to hammer this out, I wasn’t Colonel Lumpy and military men might figure that out. But I also couldn’t leave the corrupt soldiers for Gina to handle on her own. I needed to get in on this.
“Which direction is the front of the house,” I asked.
Essea was completely confused and looking around trying to figure out what I’d just asked. Mercy shrugged. Dellon said, “That wall over there,” pointing it out.
I walked up to the wall, opened a latched window, and pushed it out just enough to eavesdrop on what was happening outside. Okay, yeah, there were ten soldiers out there, and Gina was trying to keep them out of the building. There were a couple more of my guys down there forming a human fence, but they were outnumbered at the moment. Callic was there, stink eyeing the guys, and was probably keeping three or four solidly cowed all by himself. Having a motherfucker working for you was useful on occasion.
The conversation down there was typical posturing and jockeying for a legal upper hand in a red tape sort of way. But combined with macho military tempers and something like an eagerness to get in here. The garrison soldiers were starting to grip their sheathed swords with an intent to draw. They were probably under orders to secure the place by any means necessary, or something of the like. At this rate, blood would be shed. And I didn’t want to risk any of my people against trained military personnel. But I had no way to show my face without risking complications down the line.
…Well, maybe I could…
I formed some magic in the air at two points. One near Gina’s ear and the other near my mouth. After connecting them in a one way broadcast, I lightly whispered into the air, “Don’t look around and just listen. Ask them what their commanding officer’s rank is, and then name drop Colonel Braug.”
Gina’s cat ear flicked in surprise and she maybe eyeballed around a little to find the source of the whisper, as she checked over her shoulder a little, but she rolled with it.
“Okay, Sergeant, I have one question for you. What’s the rank of the CO that ordered you out here?”
Oh, it sounded like Gina was going to have fun with this.
“Don’t call him a CO. He’s the garrison captain. Captain Theen.”
“Weeeell, our unit is under the direct command of Colonel Braug himself. So I think his orders supersede your garrison captain’s orders by several ranks of hierarchy. Sergeant. And his orders are that no one he doesn’t clear can enter or leave this building. Including. You.”
Wow. Gina was using the rank designations like they were insults. Women just have this inborn talent of emasculating men, don’t they?
“C-Colonel Braug,” the sergeant asked. The guy must really have a terrible reputation, the sergeant actually took a step back from hearing the name. “We- we still have to secure this site, though. We’re under orders.”
I whispered again, “I’m busy inside the house, but you’ll do him a favor and tell me they’re here. Then come find me.”
“I tell you what, sergeant, I’ll do you a favor. The Colonel doesn’t like to be disturbed when he’s busy, and boy is he busy right now. But I’ll go and tell him your squad is here and see what he has to say. Wish me luck.”
Gina turned and walked into the house. After she left I think I heard a mumble from the sergeant that could have been a “good luck,” or maybe a disgruntled grumble. Hard to tell. The soldiers seemed like they were content to stand around for a few minutes. Good.
I immediately closed the window and went to the writing desk to find what I needed. A fountain pen, ink (if I needed to refill the pen), and some blank sheets of paper. I was about to put pen to paper when I was dumbstruck by my own idiocy. I have the handwriting of a five year old in this language! There’s no way those soldiers would believe a colonel had written the message! I looked frantically around the room.
Essea = Probably Uneducated.
Dellon = Idiot.
Mercy = Hapless Scientist.
Okay, Mercy was the best bet for legible handwriting.
“Mercy, get over here. I need you to transcribe something.”
As Mercy and I were switching out the seat at the desk, Gina entered the room asking what the plan was. I hurriedly hushed her up and turned to Mercy to say, stuffily, “Write this down. As Dictated by Colonel Braug of the… what’s the name of your military?”
“The Holy Fulchas Army’s Command,” offered Gina.
“The Holy Fulchas Army’s Command,” I continued on. “I have been made aware of your presence, and it is nothing but an unwelcome annoyance. I am in the middle of the investigation into the attempted murder of a military officer by an organized criminal group, and I will not tolerate interference of any kind. I hereby order you soldiers and the rest of your garrison, including your commanding officer, to remain on standby inside your garrison until further notice. Pressing orders prevent me from staying in town for long, however, and after the initial arrests are made, all prisoners and evidence will be turned over to the local authorities so that they may continue the investigation themselves.” I paused for a moment and put some deep thought into how an uptight psycho would go about threatening the soldiers of his own nation to stay out of his way. “I shall personally punish any soldier who shows signs of insubordination to my orders. That is all. And end it with something appropriate an officer would sign a dispatch with.”
Dellon said, “Sign it with, Glory to the King, and Blessings of the Goddess.”
With a final flourish of the pen, Mercy held the page up for me to read. I nodded in satisfaction. The handwriting was legible but not neat. It unfortunately had the girly curls and tilt that I had been expecting, but that was why I said it was dictated. “Should I sign it,” I asked aloud.
“Orders are only legal if they’ve been signed,” said Gina, realizing the stumbling block as she said it.
I immediately put the sheet of paper on the desk, took a pen, and made squiggles that might be a rank and name if you were drunk enough. It was basically a doctor’s signature. If it was legal for American bureaucracy, it was probably legal for Fulchas. I handed the completed fake orders to Gina who smiled, folded the paper into thirds, and carried it outside. I took my station at the window again to see if things went according to plan, and to be in a good sniping position in case they didn’t. Thankfully, the sergeant in charge of the dispatch only took a little more convincing from Gina to be sent away after reading the impromptu orders. But he turned to look back at the house some before he got out of visual range. He might be in on the corruption, then…
I left the study and went down stairs. I called out to the first soldier I saw and asked about the urchins. I was directed to the kitchen where another soldier who had his helmet off and resting on a butcher’s block was in charge of inventorying the food and packing it up for hauling away. The urchins were surrounding the butcher’s block and stuffing their faces with cubes of cheese, slices of ham, and chunks of bread that the soldier probably set up for them. Gads, they were going at it like there was no tomorrow. Well, growing boys and poverty and all that.
The urchins looked at me like they had been caught doing something bad and were waiting for the moment to make a break for it.
“Eat your food a little slower, kids,” I said offhandedly, as though I was talking to an equal. I always treated kids like they were of equal standing, and I found they respected me for not pandering to them. “If you stuff your food without chewing you’ll just give yourselves diarrhea.”
Heh. That made their eyes bulge. The urchins looked at each other, then at their food, and I said, “The foods not going anywhere. But I need to ask for a volunteer or two to watch the military garrison in town to make sure they stay put and don’t try anything.”
The urchins made sad eyes as they looked down at the food on the butcher’s block.
“I’ll pay for the work with a hot, hearty breakfast in the morning.”
The urchins all started volunteering at once.
“Hang on, hang on. You three,” I designated them, “will be on watch at the garrison, and the fourth will bring you your hot breakfasts in the morning. Now, I’ll need you to leave quickly to shadow the soldiers back to the garrison.”
The urchins looked back down at the food on the butcher’s block.
I sighed and turned to the soldier, probably Kyl something. He seemed to have a soft spot for the kids as he was looking at their disappointment with sad eyes of his own.
“Did you find any mustard or something like that?”
“Yes, sir. It’s around… here,” he said, pulling a stout jar from a cabinet.
There was still a kitchen knife on the butcher’s block that I picked up and used to cut the cheese into slices, made some fresh cuts on the ham, and picked up a bread knife near the loaf to make sliced bread. Then I slapped mustard on the sliced bread, piled on the ham and cheese, and asked Kyl to get some wrapping paper. I used it to bind half of each of the sandwiches and handed them out to the kids, saying, “There. Meals to go. That should keep you sated for a while. Get going as soon as you can kids, but remember, chew your food. Or you’ll be the ones who suffer.”
The urchins took the sandwiches and pocketed some of the remaining food on the table before dashing out the door as I told them, “And remember, instantly notify me if it looks like the soldiers at getting ready to attack anyone.” I barely got the final words out before the urchins were running out of the kitchen. I turned around to find the last urchin, the one who’d originally helped me with kidnapping the idiot trio from the bar and asked, “What’s wrong.”
The urchin was hanging his head, analyzing his sandwich and said dejectedly, “Tha udder fellers is gunna get theys brekfasts and I’s gunna have’ta bring it ta’ em. An I won’t get one’a my own.”
It was pretty adorable how much he misunderstood. I almost didn’t want to correct him. But I pulled up a chair and sat down to get closer to his eye level before saying, “I don’t think you actually get the situation, kid. By being the person who’ll be delivering the breakfasts to the other kids, you’re going to be getting your full meal before any of the others.”
“Really,” I said back with a smile. “In fact, I chose you to stay behind for a reason. You see, I could tell you were the smartest of your group since a while ago.”
The kid tried… almost not at all to seem humble about it and said, “Izzit that obius?”
Okay, he’s savvy, but not intelligent. When I originally approached the urchins with the proposal of work, all of them turned it down out of disdain or suspicion. But this kid listened to my proposal before making a judgement, and then recruited three more kids.
“Only to an observant man,” I said as a counterpoint to his swelling head. As the kid was just started to get petulant over my dig, I continued. “And that’s what makes it all the better. Because I see a little bit of promise in you kid, and if it’s you, you might understand what I’m talking about.”
“The secrets of making a profit while getting other people to do all the work for you.”
Kyl turned something of a shocked and aghast face at me, probably thinking something along the lines of ‘what do you think you’re teaching a kid.’ But I didn’t care and kept on going.
“You see, for any group to actually be successful, they need a leader who is able to rally them towards a goal. Show them what to do and how to do it. When normal people are led by men of vision, there is nothing they can’t accomplish.”
“An I ‘ave that vissun?”
“You saw the potential profit in accepting my business offer. You do have that vision.”
“But… tha biggest kid in our gangs is Brent. ‘E’s tha leader. Theres no way I’s could beat ‘um…”
“You don’t have to beat anyone to be the guy in control, kid. You just have to figure out a way, and a reason, for other people to follow you instead of another guy. And you already have it. Start a business, renting out street kids as guides, couriers, and information brokers for visitors to your city. It might not work right away, but you’ve shown tonight that your group is uniquely talented in knowing where everything and everyone are in this city.”
“Tha’s cause it’s our city, sir!”
“Just so,” I said, reclining in the chair a bit. “And it’s time you started making some money from that fact. And once you start making money, other kids’ll want to get in on the business as well. Once that happens you’ll need to start balancing your needs with other people’s needs, and that will be the tricky part. Because if people don’t get what they need in order to survive, they’ll just take it for themselves.”
The urchin looked away, an attempt at looking innocent appearing across his face.
“But you already know that. So kid, the key to leadership is to figure out what people need, instead of what they want, and give it to them before they take it for themselves. Different people need different things, so that’s the hardest part, figuring them out. After that, it’s just about keeping them satisfied with what they have while you try and profit from everyone else’s work. And if anyone tries to take your top spot, well, if they can’t take care of people the way you can, they won’t have it for very long.”
I stood up, patted the kid on the shoulder, and turned to leave the room. Kyl had his hands on his hips giving me a look like a disappointed mother and said, “How could you say those things to a kid?”
“Because that’s what he needed to learn. Hey, kid. Come with me, I need some of your expertise right now.”
The kid nearly bounded up from his chair before hesitating and asking with a smile, “‘Ow much ya gunna pay me, sir?”
I chuckled and said, “Quick study. I’ll give you a Sul for helping me identify some folk.”
“Yer on,” exclaimed the kid as he snatched up his sandwich and bounced after me.
On the way to the living room, I offhandedly asked the kid, “Do you know any math?”
The kid had to swallow a bite of sandwich before he could reply. “Nut really, sir.”
“Is there a way for you to learn?”
“Lessuns is taught at tha church, sir.”
“Then have them teach you. Writing as well. If you want to be a leader of men you can’t just be more intelligent or more cunning than them, you also need to have knowledge that they don’t. And if you have that, it can become a weapon more effective than any sword.”
“Yes, sir,” said the kid dourly. He was silent for a moment before asking, “Is really ‘ard leadin’ izzunt it?”
“It’s the hardest thing in the world, kid. But if you do it right, there’s nothing more rewarding.”
The urchin nodded, and then we stepped into the living room.
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