“This is bullshit!” Minen exclaims, slamming her mug down on the table forcefully. Geschutz shushes her to no avail – a sober Minen can reach legendary levels of rage, but a drunk Minen? Now that is another story entirely. Buchse is beginning to wonder why they decided to go out for drinks in the first place.
“How can they just shut us down!?” Minen nearly shouts, attracting some perturbed glances from the other pub-goers. “After all the valuable information we’ve obtained for this country! All the missions we’ve completed! All the evidence we’ve disposed of and threats we’ve taken out and shit we’ve put up with!! And this is how they repay us!? Not even a ‘sorry you don’t have a job anymore’ consolation prize!?”
Geschutz sighs wearily. “Yes, it is rather disappointing. A bit of gratitude would not have been misplaced, all things considered. But you can’t really blame them for shutting down the Agency. The economy’s headed towards collapse – it’s no wonder they’re cutting corners where they can.”
But Minen doesn’t seem to be listening. “Absolutely ridiculous,” she growls, glaring into her drink. Her cheeks are slightly flushed from the alcohol, and with that grumpy pout on her face she looks every inch the sulking child. Minen tries very hard to distance herself from the “spoiled brat” stereotype, but deep down she’s just like the other rich kids. There’s a part of her that always expects things to go her way. The thought brings a wry smirk to Buchse’s lips.
Her slightly unfocused gaze turns toward him. “And what’re you grinning about, you mute bastard? You’re just as fucked as the rest of us! … Unless…” Minen’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “Unless you have another job offer waiting for you. That’s impossible, though. Why would anyone hire your surly ass when they could hire a beautiful girl like me??”
Buchse shrugs, laughing quietly. “Maybe I just have something you don’t.”
Immediately, Minen’s hostile tone changes.
“Whaaat!? I can’t believe it… Hey, I know! Why don’t you put in a good word for me; get me a job there too? We could work together again, just like old times! It’ll be great!”
Geschutz looks doubtful. “Do you really have something lined up already? As far as I can tell, openings in our line of work are pretty much nil at the moment…”
Buchse shakes his head. (He can joke around with Minen to his heart’s content, but in the end, the girl’s right. He’s “just as fucked” as she is. He’s been an agent of Belfar since he was sixteen years old. That’s four long years of Just Following Orders, never thinking about the future, never contemplating what might come to pass. It never occurred to him that the Agency could just cease to be, but now it’s done just that, and he’s left floating, directionless, in a sea of confusion.)
Minen groans and puts her head in her hands. “What am I gonna do?” she wonders aloud. “I checked every job listing on the way here, and there’s nothing. I can’t go home… Not with my father there… I don’t think I could stand being cooped up in that house again…”
Buchse and Geschutz exchange a glance. They’re used to being berated by Minen, not feeling pity for her. But somewhere in the middle of her impassioned rants, it’s easy to forget that she’s younger than both of them. An adult in Ritterschild, perhaps, but elsewhere she would still be considered a child.
Geschutz surreptitiously reaches over and slides her mug away from her. “I think we’ve had enough for today,” he says. “Let’s head home and sleep on it, shall we? And who knows? Maybe, in time, opportunities will present themselves. For all of us.”
There is an urgent knock at the door.
Buchse’s eyes open instantaneously, the product of several hundred nights spent on high-alert guard duty. He hauls himself out of bed with only a muffled yawn and quick stretch of his muscles. His eyes wander to the clock. Six in the morning. What the hell could anyone want with him at this hour?
He peers through the peephole as he tugs on a raggedy old shirt (it’s usually best to look somewhat presentable). The man outside his door is a stranger, small and mousey-looking, with a pinched face and a haughty air about him. Doesn’t look armed, though. Or particularly dangerous.
Buchse sets about undoing the locks on his door – four of them, to be precise. If there’s one thing he’s learned over the years, it’s that you can never, ever be too careful.
“Ah, hello my good sir,” says the man in the hallway. He drops into a deep bow, as if Buchse were some great Lord. “You go by the name of Buchse, correct? I have here an invitation for you from the venerable Lady Halnish, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Third Seat of the Six Court Nobles. She requests your presence this afternoon at Veilstadt, the Halnish family’s summer home, to discuss matters of possible… employment.”
The man hands over a card – delicate gold leaf decorates its edges, and the handwriting is extravagant to say the least, each letter inked with painstaking precision. Buchse stares at it for a moment, bewildered. A job… working for one of Ritterschild’s noble families? Is this guy serious? Normally he would be suspicious of such an opportunity falling into his lap, but… What would this man gain by lying to him? It has to be legitimate.
“Thank you,” Buchse says, each word cautious and hesitant. “I will… be there. I guess?”
The man beams at him. “Oh, that is wonderful,” he says. “Lady Halnish will be ever so pleased to hear that. I realize that this is very short notice, my good sir, but do try to be prompt, yes? No later than three o’clock, I should say. Mistress… does not like to be kept waiting.” He tips his hat genially and then departs, disappearing down the hallway before Buchse can say another word.
Buchse closes the door. He stands there for a moment, staring long and hard at the elaborate invitation in his hand.
A day after the dissolution of the Belfar Agency, and he already has a job offer. From the Minister of Foreign Affairs, no less.
What the hell is going on?
In the end, Buchse doesn’t tell Geschutz and Minen where he’s going. Minen would probably just laugh at him and tell him to “stop making shit up, you mute bastard.” (If she’s gotten over her inevitable hangover, that is.)
He catches a cab at half past noon – when he tells the driver where he’s headed, the man gives him a doubtful once-over. Buchse doesn’t own much in the way of formal clothes, and he supposes he must look rather unfit to be visiting nobility. But the driver’s not about to ignore a paying customer, and Buchse settles back to enjoy the ride. Sort of. He’s never liked cabs much. Too cramped and claustrophobic, and Ritterschild’s cobbled streets and dirt roads are notoriously bumpy. After an hour of travel his entire body aches, and he thinks he might bail out and walk if they hit one more pothole. Miraculously, at that very moment the cab rounds a bend in the road and Veilstadt comes into view. For a “summer home” it seems rather austere; tall and imposing, with ivy-laden balconies and marble columns around the front entranceway. The grounds are immaculate, with hedges trimmed just so and not a blade of grass out of place.
The cab lurches to a halt. “Here you are, sir,” the driver says, with a snide undertone to his voice. “That’ll be 3200 potch, if you please.”
It’s far too much for an hour long trip, but Buchse shoves the coins into the man’s hand anyhow, eager to leave the cab and its dreadful confined space. The outside air, devoid of the city’s grime and pollution, is incredibly refreshing, and Buchse finds himself feeling slightly more optimistic about this whole affair. Maybe there’s nothing to be worried about after all. The unbelievable timing of this job offer could easily be a coincidence. Right?
Buchse approaches the magnificent double doors that mark the front entrance, marveling at the sheer excess of the place. And yet… There is a strangely oppressive atmosphere blanketing the house. It’s fairly sunny today, but every single window is shut, dark curtains drawn like they have something to hide.
“Terribly gloomy, isn’t it?”
The voice comes from right behind him, so close that he could easily reach out and touch the speaker. Buchse hardly has time to register his own shock and surprise before his instincts and years of military training kick in. He spins around slams his would-be assailant into the nearest marble column, drawing his pistol lightning-quick and pressing the barrel against their temple. In this split-second, his mind races. No one has ever been able to sneak up on him so effortlessly. No one, that is, except for… Except for…
“You.” He breathes the word like an accusation.
“Me!” Tsaubern exclaims, smiling in a way that no person with a gun against their skull has a right to smile. “Might I say that I was not expecting such an exciting reunion! You haven’t changed a bit, I see. Still aiming firearms at innocent bystanders.”
Buchse lowers his weapon and steps back, his mind reeling. “You… are a Halnish?”
“Unfortunately,” Tsaubern replies, still smiling away like everything is right in the world.
It should have been obvious, in hindsight. The way he carries himself, his refined, pompous manner of speaking, the flash of recognizance in Minen’s eyes when they first came face to face, the expensive-looking signet ring on his right hand… Not to mention his vast knowledge of “everyone who’s anyone.” Buchse thinks back, with some trepidation, to his time at Castle Arcadia. So he quite nearly shot the heir to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the face, eh? Not to mention slamming him into a column just a few moments ago.
… He suspects that this job interview might be over rather quickly.
But Tsaubern seems unruffled. In fact, he is already walking away, motioning for Buchse to follow. “Come along now,” he calls. “I’m sure Gregor already told you as much, but it’s best not to keep Mother waiting!”
Buchse takes a deep breath. He did come all this way, after all, and there’s really no turning back now. With a hint of wariness, he follows Tsaubern into the foreboding interior of the mansion.
Lady Halnish is a petite woman, several inches shorter than her son. Her body seems to be comprised entirely of sharp angles, harsh and unappealing to the eye, and her cheeks are as gaunt and hollow as a skeleton’s. She looks ill, and yet… There is a fierceness in her gaze that takes him aback. Frail as she may appear, this is not a woman to trifle with.
“So this is him,” she says, looking Buchse up and down. “My dear son requesting a bodyguard was odd enough, since he’s outright refused my offers of hired security in the past. But not just any guard would do; it had to be this one. This… ‘Buchse.’ I wonder, Buchse… What is so special about you?”
Buchse narrows his eyes and glances over at Tsaubern, who merely smirks in that smug, self-congratulating way of his.
“He’s quite adept, Mother. An excellent sharpshooter if I’ve ever seen one. And though he may not speak much, he’s really quite intelligent. I cannot think of a better candidate for this position.”
Suddenly, Buchse is acutely aware of the tension in the room, so palpable that one can almost see it, crackling through the air like electricity.
“Intelligent and an excellent marksman? And here I just thought he was your type.”
“Now, now, Mother, let’s not embarrass our guest. And it saddens me to know that you think so little of me… Do I really seem like the kind of person who would hire someone for such a base, superficial reason?”
“You’ve done it before, darling. Remember Ewan, the butler-in-training that you picked up off the side of the road? You wheedled me into hiring him, and that boy could hardly carry a plate without dropping it.”
A fond smile flits across Tsaubern’s face. “Ah, Ewan, of course… Such a charming boy. Incompetent, yes, but so very charming. He had beautiful, clumsy hands…”
Lady Halnish’s lips are pressed together in a tight, thin line. She seems more resigned than angry, though, a woman who has given up all hope of ever understanding her child. And Tsaubern seems to take pleasure in being as infuriatingly indiscernible as possible. He is lounging elegantly on a nearby chaise, entirely unconcerned with the goings-on around him.
“So, Buchse…” Lady Halnish turns towards him, once again looking him over with her piercing, judgmental stare. “Where did you meet my son? You’re not from this rural backwater, that much I know. So you must have met him during his… travels.”
Buchse nods. “Castle Arcadia,” he replies. “We were both part of Veritas Company.”
“Ah, of course. The ragtag band of misfits that brought down the mighty Order. My son absolutely refuses to divulge any information about his time there, so tell me… Exactly how useless was he?”
Tsaubern laughs softly.
“He fought well,” Buchse says, and it’s the truth. For a pampered noble, Tsaubern had handled himself remarkably well in battle, often putting himself in harm’s way to assist his fellow comrades. Buchse clearly remembers an Order ambush in the Wilds of Veile… A wound in his side, making him dizzy from the blood loss… And then, suddenly, the feeling of being whole again as Tsaubern’s healing magic enveloped him. After that, he had begun watching Tsaubern more closely. Even though he disliked him, there was something rather… entrancing about the man. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“See, Mother?” Tsaubern is saying. “I wasn’t a dead weight in the slightest. You always expect the worst of me, don’t you?”
“I wonder why,” Lady Halnish mutters, and then shakes her head exasperatedly. “Fine, my dear. You win. You can have your bodyguard if you want him so badly. Buchse, you are to report to me in my study at the end of each week to receive your compensation. And perhaps the two of us will have ourselves a little chat every once in a while, eh? Now, I have work to do. You are dismissed.”
“Wonderful!” Tsaubern leaps up off the chaise with the agile grace of a cat. “Follow me, Buchse. I’ll lead you to your quarters.”
“But my apartment…”
“Taken care of, my friend! As soon as you arrived, I had Gregor head back into town to pay your remaining rent and gather your things.”
“You must be wondering how I knew my mother would agree to this arrangement. Let’s just call it a hunch, shall we?” Tsaubern cranes his neck to look at him and winks conspiratorially. “You’re just such a stunning conversationalist, I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist.”
“And you may be wondering how I knew that you would agree to this arrangement. But that is quite simple, really. I merely took into account your unemployed status, coupled with the low demand for jobs of your particular skill-set. The only other viable option for one such as yourself would be military service, and my extensive background check revealed your distaste for hierarchical bureaucracies like the RAF. Thus, accepting this job was clearly the best and perhaps only option for you.”
They walk in silence for a few moments as Buchse tries to absorb this roundabout explanation. And then, suddenly, an idea occurs to him.
“The Belfar Agency… Was that you as well?”
Tsaubern pauses. They’re climbing an ornate staircase, the marble handrails engraved with delicate floral patterns. Above their heads, a crystal chandelier glitters, and portraits of the Halnish ancestors glare down at them with barely concealed distaste. When he turns to looks at Buchse, his expression is strangely somber.
“What do you think?” he asks. “Was it me?”
Buchse ponders this for a moment, then shakes his head. Instantaneously, Tsaubern’s ever-present smile falls back into place.
“Good man. You shouldn’t flatter yourself like that, you know. Or me, for that matter. I don’t possess that kind of power. My mother doesn’t even have that kind of power. In all honesty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is rather lacking when it comes to influence.”
“On its own, maybe.”
Tsaubern side-eyes him for a moment, then bursts out laughing. “Oh goodness. You are a smart one, aren’t you? I knew I made the right choice seeking you out.”
“I’ve been doing politicians’ dirty work for years now,” Buchse says with a half-hearted shrug. “I know how you people operate.”
“‘You people’? Oh Buchse, you wound me with your callous words! I am nothing like those old fools in the Court, and I am certainly nothing like my dear mother. I brought you here to be my bodyguard, surely, but above all else I brought you here because I need your help.”
They’ve stopped in front of a door now, undoubtedly the door to his new sleeping quarters. Tsaubern locks eyes with him, staring him down with surprising intensity. The smile is still there, but suddenly there is a hard, determined edge to it. Here is a man with a plan of action, who will do anything and everything to see his goals realized. Buchse feels himself tremble, just a bit, in the presence of this person.
“I want to change this country,” Tsaubern says. “I want to change it from the inside out. Get rid of this failing government. Put an end to all the corruption and lies. I’m sick of these old men who cling to their wealth and their status while everything goes to hell around them. I’m sick of their derision and their uselessness and their antiquated ideas.
“I’m going to change Ritterschild for the better, Buchse. And you’re going to help me do it.”
He presses a small silver key into Buchse’s palm.
“Sleep tight,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do, after all. And don’t worry if things seem unclear at first. In time, I promise… Everything will fall into place.”