Excerpt: The Calm Before

The Greenleaf Gentlemen’s Club was nestled in amongst grander, newer clubs at the foot of Acorn Hills. It was grown from native oak, squat and unassuming, its windows irregular and its interior dark. To Riagan, as he strode through cluttered tables and comfortable chairs emerging knobby and knotted from the floor, the smell of such ancient wood was exactly the fragrance of old money. Even the servants came from good families, as working at such a club was one of the few jobs an aristocratic young elf could respectably take.

Riagan had one of those young elves direct him to a reading room. It gave him particular pleasure to have the well-bred fellow speak so deferentially to him. Riagan tucked the obligatory tip into the lad’s shirt pocket and made his way up the narrow, winding stairs. All along them were portraits of deceased members, adding to the club’s sense of age and stagnation.

He had to duck to get through the doorway into the reading room. Inside it was so dim it played with his night vision, making the outlines of objects flicker indigo until his eyes adjusted. Although the small room was lined with bookshelves, no one came into such places to read. The skylight, tinted to create a colourful leafy pattern on the worn floor, let in little light.

Lord Beathan Talisman sat in one of the recliners, puffing on a pipe that had filled the room with sage smoke. He looked over at Riagan, not speaking. Riagan paused a respectful distance away and bowed. “Greetings of the New Year to you, m’lord.”

“And to you, Mr. Antarrea,” Beathan said civilly. He was a brittle, old, argent elf, his hair gone from silver to white in places, his eyes gleaming pale and hard.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me so quickly.”

“Yes, well, sit down.”

Riagan sat on the edge of a wooden chair opposite the recliner. The usual courtesies were second nature to him. They also made his pulse quicken, because they were the prelude to the real game. The moments leading up to the game were almost as good as the game itself. At that moment, he still couldn’t be sure his plan would work. “How is your lady wife?”

“The same, the same.”

“Is she finding the main house a little emptier these days?”

“I doubt it. Brennus didn’t exactly marry quickly.” Beathan’s mouth pulled down around the stem of the pipe.

And when he did, it was someone completely below him. Riagan gestured with his fingertips in rehearsed exasperation. “Your son has always moved to his own rhythms.”

“Yes.” Beathan turned away to tap out the pipe in a metal bowl. “Get to the point, lad.”

Riagan tugged his vest straight and smiled. Apparently the elder Lord Talisman didn’t share his appreciation for foreplay. “As you have probably guessed, m’lord, I am here to discuss a business proposition.” At Beathan’s distant nod, Riagan continued. “It concerns an acquisition I would like to make.”

“Acquisition?” Beathan grunted. “From what I’ve heard, your little company doesn’t have stable roots yet. Hardly seems responsible to be buying, lad.”

Riagan leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He gazed directly into Beathan’s face. “Fortunately, this isn’t going to cost me anything.” He let himself show a few teeth as he spoke. Beathan paused, then turned his head slightly to make eye contact, his faint brows knitting. His pipe hovered mid-tap. Riagan’s grin spread. “You’re going to give me the Breickwalle Mine, m’lord.”

“Breickwalle?” Beathan’s tone sharpened. “What the rot do you want with that?”

“Minisman Corp is a resource exploration company, m’lord.”

“But you’ve got to know that blasted mine’s useless.” Beathan’s lean face, chin pointed enough to stab, contorted in impatient incomprehension.

“I’m ever an optimist, m’lord.”

Beathan pondered this, setting down his pipe and folding his hands in his lap. Eventually he shook his head. “No. You’re a bright lad and my son thinks the moon of you, but I can’t just give you something like that.”

Riagan’s grin spread even more. It amused him to be misunderstood in a positive way for once. “M’lord, I’m not asking for a gift. You will give me that mine in a trade.”

“Trade?” Beathan snorted.

“The mine for certain video footage, m’lord.”

That took the ice out of Beathan’s eyes. He straightened up and glared, but in silence.

“You know exactly what I mean, m’lord.”

“After all my family has done for you, you ungrateful little gutter sprog!”

“Done for me and to me, m’lord.”

“And if I were to introduce to society just how religiously you frequent certain establishments in the entertainment district?”

Riagan chuckled and stood up. He put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the fragile old elf who stared up at him impotently. “M’lord, everyone knows my appetites are as barbaric as this ill-bred face of mine suggests. What I’m offering to reveal to the inner circles, is something that no one knows about you.” He went to the sideboard and poured himself a drink, leaning against the wall as he sipped high-quality nut liqueur and listened to Beathan’s ragged breathing. He took his time, savouring that stiff silence as much as the drink itself. The room darkened with the afternoon’s shifting light and the leaves on the floor lost some of their hue.

There was a figurine of a swan on the shelf next to him. He picked it up, running his fingertips over its delicate folded wings. For just a moment, his mother’s voice rang in his ears.

You mustn’t touch the young mistress’s things! They don’t belong to you. Nothing belongs to you, m’lad, and don’t you forget that! Riagan shook his head to clear away her voice and the phantom burning of a firmly pinched ear. He deliberately tucked the figurine into his pocket. Beathan was still frozen and staring at him. Finally Riagan set the empty glass down and licked his lips.

“My assistant is at your convenience for a reply, m’lord.” With that, he strode from the room.

He’d show them all just how much he could own.

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