215 The Skeleton Fingers
The stout bartender led Theo to a small chamber upstairs and asked the servers to continue with the cleanup before he closed the door.
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The room was reserved for customers with particular needs. As it only cost 25 bronze royals per night, the abode was kind of shabby. The crumbled beddings on the tiny musty bed appeared to have not been washed or dried for ages. The cracked wooden table looked greasy and dirty. One corner of the table was chopped off, and the cracks were filled with black stuffings. Theo, however, carelessly threw himself to the bed, waiting for the bartender to break the silence.
"It has been such a long time." The big man grinned. "Why haven't you swung by since Lord Nagi took over your place? It doesn't hurt to come down here to have a drink even if you've washed your hands off the matter."
The bartender's nickname was Black Hammer. He was the guardian of "Covert Trumpeter", and also a member of the "Skeleton Fingers". Although his name sounded quite intimidating, he was one of the many Rats in the Black Street of the king's city. It was common for Rats to form various cliques to compete for territories. They would then further establish multiple large but loosely managed organizations based on their areas of business. These underground organizations were invariably somewhat colluding with great nobles or wealthy merchants. The "Skeleton Fingers" was just one of them. Unlike vassals, however, most Rats would not pledge alliance to a specific person but were more often driven by interest and profits.
"Cut the crap," Theo said bluntly, "Ask Hillwei, Swineherd, Silver Ring and Pott to come here tonight, right in this tavern. I need them to do something for me."
"These are all members of Covert Trumpeter." Black Hammer failed to respond immediately. "Just them?"
"I've told you it's going to be a good deal." Theo shrugged. "I pick you to do the task is simply because you did a lot for me in the past."
Generally speaking, the first step to do business with the Black Street was to find an intermediary who would decide whether to take the task or not. Once an agreement had been reached, the intermediary would then assign the task to the appropriate person and charge fees. Of course, everything during this negotiation was oral. There was no formal contract or written document to guarantee the success of the operation. The employer would have to take the risk of uncertainty himself. Normally, the more well-known the organization was, the more they cared about their integrity. Correspondingly, the higher fees they would charge. Newly established organizations usually charge a relatively low fee, but there was a big chance that the employer ended up paying for nothing. There existed a delicate relationship between Rats and the city patrol team, who, in some degrees, jointly maintained the order of the king's city with the former.
Before Theo had become a guard in the palace, he had been a member of the patrol team, responsible for handing over some dirty work to various organizations in the Black Street. Due to the nature of his work, Theo was familiar with every large underground group. It thus saved him time to look for intermediaries. The reason he selected the Skeleton Fingers was that their members had yet to reduce themselves to the basest and most vicious kind in the world.
"Can I ask who you're working for these days?" After a moment of hesitation, Black Hammer asked.
Theo did not reply but simply pointed to the palace behind him.
Neither the patrol team nor Rats knew that he had been appointed by King Wimbledon III as the guard of Prince Roland, and he had gone to Border Town with His Highness shortly after he had become a palace guard. In the past half a year while he had been absent, everybody had thought Theo was staying at the palace and working for the king. Technically, Theo was not lying by implicating the palace, as both Timothy and Roland Wimbledon were members of the royal family.
"Got it." Black Hammer nodded with some understandings. "Hillwei and Swineherd are actually gone. Can I pick my own people?"
"What happened to them?"
"They're dead." Black Hammer gritted his teeth. "They came into conflict with people from Dreamland Water when they went to the northern city to sell poppy flowers and sleeping ferns. Casas and his men drove them away. Hillwei got her throat slit and bled out, whereas Swineherd was dumped into the canal."
Theo frowned. The patrol team did not give a damn about things like this. They sometimes even deliberately provoke Rats to fight against each other as a way to balance out their power and number. Nobody cared about victims. "Well, that should be fine. But make sure that they must be someone in the tavern."
Theo took a deep breath as soon as he left "Covert Trumpeter".
The musty, damp air in the tavern made his stomach turn. He had been feeling sick all this time, until the fresh, balmy air outside at last filled his lung and dispersed the stifling sensation.
Despite that Black Hammer insisted that he should try some of the best wines in the tavern while waiting for the other members, Theo did not want to stay at a stuffy place for too long, for he needed to constantly keep an eye on any possible contingencies that might occur.
Theo decided to first go to Inner City to book a relatively comfortable hotel room where he could spend the night. He did not worry about the soldiers from the First Army in the slightest, as he believed they had been quite good at pitching tents for the night.
When night descended, Theo returned to "Covert Trumpeter" again.
The tavern was now during its regular business hours. Theo could see customers go in and out from time to time. After secretly observing the tavern from a distance for a while, he went in with one of customers.
As "Covert Trumpeter" was a cheap tavern, most customers were peasants. The wines offered were also ales of low quality, which were served in large bowls and cost merely 10 bronze royals. Theo soon spotted Black Hammer's men in the noisy crowd. They were sitting in a circle close to the wall, with a fraction of a white finger bone on their table.
Theo joined them silently. Soon somebody offered him a spot.
"Good evening, my lord." Both Silver Ring and Pott bowed to him.
"Let me present you these two members. This is Little Finger." Black Hammer patted the petit person next to him and then pointed to the young man beside Little Finger. "This is Hill Fawkes, who joined the 'Skeleton Fingers' just very recently."
"Fawkes?" Theo rested his eyes on the man. The latter bowed, appearing to be a little nervous.
"Well, people in our profession seldom have a full name." Black Hammer broke into a laughter. "Hill lost everything in a casino, and his wife ran away with another fellow. His house was put on sale and he had no choice but to join the Black Street. Don't worry. He used to live in the northern city and visit 'Covert Trumpeter' occasionally."
Theo did not worry too much about the other members. Silver Ring and Pott were both old acquaintances of his, and Little Finger looked no different from any ordinary homeless people, but he was just concerned about this Hill Fawkes. From his outer appearance, Theo could tell that this man had definitely experienced some great misfortunes and had now sunk in the lowest dejection. However, there was something in his eyes that Theo failed to name. Theo thought for a while but could not find an accurate answer.
After a moment of reflection, Theo made the conclusion that Hill Fawkes should not pose a problem, for, after all, he used to live in the northern city and had also been a frequent visitor of the pub. His current priority was to send refugees to Border Town, which should not entail any ensuing risks.
"Listen carefully. It's a simple task. Nobles don't want to see any more refugees coming from the Eastern Region because food is decreasing day by day. If things go on like this, sooner or later there'll be a riot. By then, the situation will be out of control. So, they want us to find a way to get them out of here."
"What do you want us to do?" Black Hammer asked.
"Very simple. You spread out the news that the lord of the Western Region needs refugees to help him cultivate virgin lands. The mercenaries and fleets to escort refugees are now on the way and will be arriving at the dock in three days. What you need to do is to let those idiots outside the city know the information. Feel free to use your imagination. The more real it sounds like, the better."
"But... if there're no mercenaries or fleets after three days, it'll be a waste of time." Silver Ring looked concerned.
"There will be." Theo smiled.
"Huh?" Silver Ring was stunned. "Is the Lord of the Western Region really accepting them?"
"You thickhead!" Black Hammer slapped Silver Ring on the back of his head. "Certainly we have to make up a perfect lie. Do you think they'll walk to the king city once shipped to the Western Region? As to how to deal with them, let the lord there worry about." He looked at Theo hesitatively. "It's indeed an easy task. But how about the compensation..."
Theo stuck out two fingers. "Two times the normal rate. My new employer is nothing like the patrol team. He wants to see the result as soon as possible, and he doesn't care much about gold royals." Theo smiled faintly. "I've told you it's a good deal."