Almah eyes widened in outrage. “Absolutely not! I would bring shame to my family name if I accepted such an offer! I would be dead to them!”
“That can be arranged,” Undrella muttered from behind Santon. He held a hand up to silence her.
Almah was exaggerating, of course, as any merchant would. Still, Santon had to play this carefully. He didn’t just need Almah to agree to his demands, he needed her to be happy she had agreed. This deal could not turn sour. He needed her. She would bring a sense of legitimacy to their town.
“Be nice, Undrella.” Santon scolded with a slight tilt of his lip. He smiled bashfully at Almah, leaned forward and then whispered. “What can I say? She’s protective of my interests.” Santon sat back up. “It’s a good offer, Almah. You should think about it.”
Almah frowned deeply, as if she were extremely upset – which she wasn’t. Not really. She was shocked more than anything. Shocked that it had come down to this and, most of all, shocked that she had so tremendouslyunderestimated Santon. Inside, Santon grinned. Everyone underestimated him. That – and his boyish good looks – were his greatest weapons.
“It’s a horrible offer with horrible connotations! Surely, you realize you are asking me to become a traitor to our great nation.”
“Traitor?” Santon asked with concern. He widened his big brown eyes and opened his mouth into a perfect ‘o’ of shock. “I imply no such thing, Princess Roveshki. A woman of your standing would have no chance of submitting to such weakness! Surely, though, you can see the benefit of aligning yourself with Kelmarane.”
“Align with Kelmarane over Katapesh?”
“You imply that we are against Katapesh. We are not! We are but a humble town, hoping to inch its way to stability in these hostile lands. You would be a great asset to us in that endeavor.”
“Your laws would not be those of Katapesh.”
Santon nodded and put on his sad face. “Alas,” he said solemnly. “With the large gnoll population in the region, I’m afraid that by keeping all of Katapesh’s laws we would be enslaved within a months time.”
“You are in Katapesh, Santon. The laws cannot change on your whims.”
Inwardly, Santon smiled. She was beginning to lose her bearings. She was no longer negotiating behind her facades and lies. She was making excuses for herself. It had finally gotten personal. Santon placed on his best serious face.
“Can’t they?” he asked.
Santon leaned forward and spoke softer. “And more important to you, Princess. Who says they can’t change on your whims, as well?”
Almah was silent for a moment. Stunned. “The Pactmasters own all that is around you. You bargain with things you do not possess a right to.”
Santon smiled the most confident smile he had in his arsenal. “Really?”
Almah shook her head. “They are powerful, Santon. More powerful than you can imagine and – “
“More interested in trade than anything else. Which we won’t hamper in the least.”
Almah shook her head.
Perfect. This was the time. He would throw all his cards on the table now. Well, not all of them. He never used them all. But a good deal of them. He would be honest.
Santon leaned forward. “Let me be frank with you, Almah.”
She raised an eyebrow.
Santon smiled and nodded. “Yes, honestly. Let’s cut the crap. Let’s leave the pretty words and flowery speeches behind.”
Almah looked dumbfounded.
“You hired us as guards. Not as warriors. Not as a strike force. Not as soldiers. Guards. And caravan guards, at that! It was not in our contract to take this town on your behalf. Now, I’m guessing you hadn’t intended for us to go for you, but for your guards to go and take the town. But, they didn’t. Did they? They refused because they’re not your guards, but the Pactmaster’s guards. You hold no sway over them.”
Almah pursed her lips and frowned.
“Also, you knew when you asked us to take the town that you should have renegotiated with us. You should have made it all nice and legal. Binding. But, you didn’t. You were worried, weren’t you? Distracted.”
“I was – ” Almah began.
“Wait. Let me finish,” Santon cut in. “Honestly, Almah, I know that the Roveshki’s haven’t had the greatest of luck these past few generations. Your family used to control Kelmarane, didn’t they? But they lost it and every attempt to reclaim it has failed. Hasn’t it?”
Almah glared daggers at Santon. “Yes.”
“Couple that with the fact that they sent you along with four guards loyal to them, not to you, left you undersupplied, and understaffed and that you embarked on this quite obviously suicidal mission in the first place and I’m certain that not only is your family having a rough time keeping their reputation in tact, but that this is your last chance to redeem them. To redeem yourself.”
“The Pactmasters will send men to take this land from you,” Almah spat angrily.
Santon shook his head. “No, Almah, they won’t. For two reasons. First: they gave this land up as lost a long time ago. They wasted way too many resources trying to reclaim it. It wasn’t good for their coffers, and so they let it go. And second: you’re not going to tell them its lost.”
“And why would I do that?”
“I imagine that whatever punishment they will pass down upon you for losing control of the town to your own employees would be well worth avoiding. Which is exactly why you’re not going to go back to Katapesh and why you’re not going to report your failure. You’re better off staying here and taking the deal.”
“Who says I will lose this town to you?”
“I do and you do.”
“I do not.”
“I thought we were cutting out the lies, Almah. If you thought you could take us out, you would have. But you can’t. Kelestair will fight at my side, as will Undrella and Bree. And once Bree joins us,” Santon smiled. “Well, then I have a few gnolls, Felliped and Trevvis on my side. Once Trevvis is on my side I get the whole lot of them. All you’ve got is your bosses guards and Garavel.”
“Garavel is enough to get revenge on you, at least!”
Santon smiled. “I’m sure he was, but I think we both know he’s not operating at his best right now, is he?”
“This isn’t a negotiation, Santon. This is intimidation.”
Santon shook his head. “It’s neither.” He paused and put on his best serious face. “Earlier I said you could be the Head Judge and Arbiter of Kelmarane, but we both know that was just the opening bid. Quite honestly, this is my town now and I don’t want to waste my time bickering with you when I have a lot of rebuilding to do. So, I’m going to make you one offer. You’re going to accept it, or you’re not. There is no bartering or arguing. Take it, or leave it. Although, we both know, if you leave it and return to Katapesh with another failure under your belt the Pactmasters will find a more profitable use for you, which I doubt you will enjoy. Are you ready for the offer?”
Slowly, Almah nodded.
“You get to be Mayor in both name and duties. You get the Mayor’s mansion, up on the hill, and will have a huge hand in the rebuilding and lawmaking process. We’ll tote your name as one of the leading forces in taking this town. You’ll be a hero. As Mayor you may also lend your opinion to the appointment of other bureaucratic posts. You will be the driving force behind our industry, commerce, and choose where to spend the town’s money. You will run Kelmarane. You will have power. Real power. You will be up for election after a five year term, but I’m sure you will have no problem keeping your seat.”
He paused. “You will not get to exercise your power over myself, Kelestair, Bree, or anyone else I deem untouchable. They will be punished for overstepping their bounds and breaking the laws, of course, but by me. I’d like some power of my own, you see. That being said, we will play fairly and none of us – or a pawn of ours – will ever challenge you for your seat as Mayor. Citizens would have the right to, of course. This would be a democracy, after all. Bree’s very set on that. Lastly, you will turn over the key to the crypts of the old church immediately, so that we can destroy the beast that lairs there and ensure Kelmarane is truly safe before we begin bringing in refugees.”
Almah paled and her jaw dropped. “How do you know about the key?”
Santon smiled. “Undrella has keen ears and a sharp mind, Almah. She learned of the key from Kardswann and has been aware of the presence below the church for many years.”
“I… What about my men? They won’t agree to this and you cannot harm them.”
“I think you know how persuasive I can be, Almah. I won’t have a problem with your guards.”
“You won’t convince Garavel. You can’t.”
Santon nodded. “I’ve seen the bolts in his neck. I know what they mean.”
“The you know he has the Pactmaster’s Favour. You cannot convince him to go against their edicts. He cannot be convinced.”
“Kelestair can remove it.”
Almah shook her head. “He accepted the gift of his own accord. You cannot – “
“It’s not a gift, Almah! It’s servitude. Mindless servitude which I can only assume he accepted because it was his only way the Pactmasters would allow him to journey with you.”
“I guarantee you, he will want them removed.”
Slowly, Almah nodded. “I accept your terms, under the assumption that you do no harm to my men, and survive the crypts of the church.”
Santon smiled and held out his hand. “We have a deal then.”
Almah reached out and shook his hand.
“I’ll have Kelestair write up the terms of our agreement later. He’s a big fan of contracts, you know.”
“Yes. I hear most Chelaxians are. It comes from their close association with devils.”
Santon laughed. “It’s the only way to survive with devils, you mean.” Santon turned his head slightly. “Undrella, dear,” he called over his shoulder. “Bring in Kelestair and Garavel, would you?”
“Of course, my pet,” she purred.
Her voice was musical. Enchanting. Addicting. Santon smiled.
“She has her claws in you quite deep,” Almah whispered.
Santon smiled. “You have no idea.”
After a moment Garavel and Kelestair entered the room. Undrella followed behind.
Kelestair nodded once. “Of course.”
“Hold him, Undrella,” Santon said.
Undrella slammed Garavel into the nearby wall and pinned him against it. He barely struggled. Behind her, Kelestair began removing a few tools from a bag at his side. They looked like doctors tools, but they had strange writing carved into them. Magically enhanced? Honestly, Santon didn’t know, and didn’t care. If Kel said he’d get the job done, he would.
“Release me immediately.” Garavel said slowly. His voice was monotone. Emotionless. It was an effect of the bolts on his neck. They dampened the emotions and tied his will to that of the Pactmasters. Santon shuddered. He had tasted slavery and it had driven him to some pretty extreme lengths. But, what would it be like to have your very mind enslaved within your own body? He couldn’t imagine. And Garavel had been living with it for months.
Kelestair dropped a single bolt to the floor. Santon stood up and walked closer. He gestured for Almah, who followed close behind.
A second bolt dropped to the floor. Kelestair removed a fluid, some gauze and bandages from his bag and treated Garavel’s neck. Finally he stepped out of the way.
“You are welcome,” he said softly to Garavel, before turning to leave. “Let him down.”
Undrella nodded and let Garavel go.
“Garavel, my friend?” Almah asked.
Garavel dashed forward as fast as lightning, grabbed Almah around the waist, dipped her low to the ground and kissed her deeply upon the lips.
Santon raised an eyebrow. “I knew you were in there somewhere, Garavel!”
In one fluid motion Garavel returned Almah to her feet and whirled on Santon.
Santon held out his hand.
Garavel ignored it and punched him squarely in the jaw. Santon fell onto his back on the floor with a thud. Undrella darted forward, but Santon stopped her with a wave and a deep laugh. He smiled up at a very angry Garavel.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he chuckled.
Garavel frowned and then slowly – ever so slowly – he smiled.
He offered Santon his hand.