The Ashlanders - Chapter 6: The Blind Man's Last Gambit (Closed, Started)

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"What is it that you want? Does the captain even know you're here?"

"That's a more complex question that you would imagine, my dear." The Gentleman answered. "I am not here on her authority, nor did she give me permission. However, we know each-other well enough that she knows, to a limited extent, how I think, and thus I would be very surprised if, in this instance, she did not know. The Captain and I have developed an understanding. If she doesn't want me intruding somewhere, she'll lock the door. Of course, we both know I'll get inside anyway, but keeping up appearances has its advantages."

He smiled a reassuring smile, where the light from the halogen lamps in the ceiling sparkled off his monocle.

"As for what I want? I was thinking that I might do my good deed for the day. To educate young minds in the true nature of their own world, and perhaps even prevent a young, innocent beauty from willingly sealing herself in a terrible cage. Surely, you are not so cruel as to deny an ageing villain such as myself a small measure of repentance?"

"... Anyway, I was going to say I have something to show you, but I can see you're busy touching woman flesh."

Sprout was usually not allowed such pride. A sinister grin shone on his face as he continued to massage Lilith, "Hey, Ruffles. Come'on over here and show me. I reckon I can multitask!"

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"... Surely, you are not so cruel as to deny an ageing villain such as myself a small measure of repentance?"

Elizabeth grimaced, "At least we are in agreement as to your nature." Before she could continue her stomach grumbled quite loudly. Only slightly embarrassed, Elizabeth looked towards the door. "You could at least offer us something to eat before you drown us in your words. We haven't had a thing to eat since yesterday."

"... Anyway, I was going to say I have something to show you, but I can see you're busy touching woman flesh."

By this point, Lilith was half asleep, a little bit of drool in the corner of mouth, "Wha?"

"Hey, Ruffles. Come'on over here and show me. I reckon I can multitask!"

She yawned slightly, "Just... you know, just don't stop doing what ya doin'." She said, fumbling around with her cigarettes and lighting one up.

Lilith had the massage, the smokes, all she needed was music and she'd probably stay there all day.

"Hey, Ruffles. Come'on over here and show me. I reckon I can multitask!"

"Hell no, it's down in my workshop. Besides, if I did show you right now, you'd pop such a boner, poor Lil here'd think she caused it."

Shrugging, he turned to leave. "Hey Casino, if you're gonna take advantage of the kid, then the least you can do is give him a happy ending."

"Hell no, it's down in my workshop. Besides, if I did show you right now, you'd pop such a boner, poor Lil here'd think she caused it."

Lilith smiled, her eyes still closed, "I'd watch out Sprout, I think he's coming onto you."

"Hey Casino, if you're gonna take advantage of the kid, then the least you can do is give him a happy ending."

"Bitch please, Mr. It's down in my workshop, the kid's mine now, you can't have him, I have to protect him from creepy bastards like you." She exclaimed, a huge smirk on her face.

"I'm so sorry, where are my manners. 'The Gentleman', at your service."

"Well met, fine sir," Josephine replied as considerate as possible, though that proved to be quite difficult. The one man she wanted to speak with had made his way here. This couldn't have been a coincidence.

"As for what I want? I was thinking that I might do my good deed for the day. To educate young minds in the true nature of their own world, and perhaps even prevent a young, innocent beauty from willingly sealing herself in a terrible cage. Surely, you are not so cruel as to deny an ageing villain such as myself a small measure of repentance?"

You jest. How can we trust that thou discourses the truth?

"You could at least offer us something to eat before you drown us in your words. We haven't had a thing to eat since yesterday."

"I had asked the sirrah for some bread before. He must have forgotten all about us," Josephine sighed.

"Bitch please, Mr. It's down in my workshop, the kid's mine now, you can't have him, I have to protect him from creepy bastards like you."

Ruffles put up his palms, grinning. "Hey, you can't talk like that when you're the one being touched in delightful new ways by a fifteen year old."

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"She is of no concern."

Cold. But then Eddie had worked for bastards before, and it didn't phase him. He stayed silent for a while, taking the measure of the others around him. Most were utterly silent, clearly just hoping to soak up any useful information before they left, although one seemed a tad full of hot air and seemed to take the 'best hunters on the planet' schtick too seriously. Eddie was surprised the man's head fit through the door.

"Alrighty then," he said to Basilio. "I see no reason to wrinkle your nose with my presence any longer than necessary, so I guess I'll see you when the job's done." Tipping the brim of his hat to the man, he turned on a boot heel and left. After a brief pause, Duke shrugged, then gave a theatrical mock bow to the Noble and followed Eddie from the room.

As the two men strode down the corridor, Duke asked, "any idea how we'll get a lead?"

"Well, they just flew that pretty little ship of theirs 'longside a train and lifted some bitches, right? So we need someone with an ear to the ground on shit going on outside the domes. We'll find Beard."

Duke snorted. "Beard? Pretty sure he's dead, man." But Eddie laughed. "He ain't dead. Hell'll freeze over and the atmosphere will clear before that bastard croaks. Just gotta know how to look for him."

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Payton Wilkes-Vines was an intimidating man. But it was a charismatic, intelligent sort of intimidation. You had to have those two qualities to head one of the most influential syndicate families on The Rock. That intimidation seemed to be having a profound effect on the man stood before him, who was twisting his hat nervously in his hands. An unusual demeanor for a Sheriff. Wilkes-Vines cut a bold figure, his clothes, somewhere between those of a rancher and a business man, were as starkly white as his hair, as was his stetson. His eyes were pale blue and icy.

Payton gestured idly to the other man standing beside the Sheriff. A drug runner recently incarcerated, and then shortly recovered via bribery and blackmail. Though Payton would not normally go to such lengths to recover someone of such little importance who was not a member of his "Family". But this man presented a lead. Indeed, Payton had been sure the man would be captured sooner or later. But one of many strands of bait. When he spoke, it was in his usual drawl.

"So, this man was captured and brought in."

"Y-yes, sir. By a bounty hunter."

"Any idea which one?"

"I believe it were that metal handed fella," the Sheriff replied, glad to be on firm ground. Then the drug runner piped up. "Yeah, that's the one! Grabbed me by the throat with that hand, so he did!"

Payton did not answer at first, but instead drummed his fingers idly on the barrel of the gun he had placed on the Sheriff's desk. It was a revolver, polished until it shone like silver, and ornately engraved. It was also very long. Though he gave no outward sign, inwardly he was very excited. He had long suspected that his former General, Eddie Canton, and the enigmatic bounty hunter Metal were one and the same, though Canton was by all accounts deceased. Soon, he would find out.

"So where is Metal now?"

The Sheriff grinned, eager to please. The fucking lickspittle. "One of my deputies tailed him. He was staying in a room at a bar, when this real flash looking guy came looking for him." His smile faltered, three of his five deputies hadn't returned from their various assignments shortly before Payton came calling. Two were those who'd been present when Metal had claimed his bounty money. But he carried on. "My man listened in. Them two headed to Feroxi. Got work from a Lord Basilio, supposedly."

Basilio. That made things simpler. He and Payton were on fairly cordial terms, and the man had no love of mercenaries. "Very good work. Very good, sirs." The two men grinned widely, but their smiles flickered when he said, "but there's a problem..." He pontificated with the revolver in his hand, and each man winced when the barrel passed over him. "You," he said, pointing to the drug runner. "You got yourself caught and lost me a rather irritating amount of carbon. While it's less than a drop in the bucket at the end of the day, it's annoying on principle. And you," he now pointed to the Sheriff, "were under orders to apprehend our mutual friend should he come calling. An endeavor in which I notice you failed terribly."

The Sheriff was crushing the hat in his hands so severely, Payton was surprised it retained its shape. "Please sir, absolutely my fault, but don't be angry..." his eyes never left the gun.

Dropping it back into its white leather holster, Payton sighed and levered himself out of the chair. "Sonny, I don't get angry." Turning, he headed to the door, and glanced back. "I have people to do that for me."

The door barely closed behind him when four men in suits and sunglasses filed through where he had been into the Sheriff's office. Payton whistled a tune to himself as he headed towards the sleek black five seater transport parked in the road. Muffled gunshots could be barely heard from the Sheriff's station. Sitting in the back of the transport, he took a long stemmed pipe from inside his jacket, began filling it, and lit it with an engraved lighter, dragging contentedly. Things were happening, and he was a man greatly pleased my progress.

"Hey, you can't talk like that when you're the one being touched in delightful new ways by a fifteen year old."

Lilith turned her head slightly, an expression of mock hurt on her face.

"How could you sir? Fine, let us ask the boy." She raised a hand to her shoulder and gently tapped one of Sprout's hands. "Axel, dear, would you rather be here, helping to aid a young woman's painful affliction? Or would you rather be in Jake 'Ruffles' Miller's Sex Dungeon, No Girls Allowed?" She gently stroked the boy's hand, doing her best to play the troubled maiden.

Ruffles doubled over laughing. "I said I would leave him to it! But for that matter, I forged a sword. Like a medieval knight's long sword. What have you done today, huh?"

He turned to leave. "Hell, working a forge makes a guy thirsty. I'm gonna go grab a beer. Remember Cas, the least you can do is let him massage your chest, too." He disappeared up the hall, still talking, with his voice getting more distant as he got further away. "Although when I was his age, I did manage to get some head. That was a good day, and Iremember that after..."

"I said I would leave him to it! But for that matter, I forged a sword. Like a medieval knight's long sword. What have you done today, huh?"

"Ya hear that Sprout, man wants to show you his sword, what do we say when a strange man offers us something like that?" She grinned.

"Hell, working a forge makes a guy thirsty. I'm gonna go grab a beer. Remember Cas, the least you can do is let him massage your chest, too."

"Pfft, maybe I will!" She turned her head quickly, looking at Sprout through the corner of her eye, "No, I won't." Shaking her head gently.

"Although when I was his age, I did manage to get some head. That was a good day, and Iremember that after..."

"Don't listen to him, he's a liar. You seen that picture in his wallet? Made it up! Stole it from a magazine or something, true story, just, you know, keep doing what you're doing." She was starting to worry about how long she could keep the boy's attention. He's really good.

Florian carried on down the hallway, giving Warren a curt nod. "Warren." The two of them had been with the crew long enough that they had to at least try and be civil around each other... at least when the ship was busy with preparations. Florian's main concern was how to handle the two nobles they had in their care right now. It wasn't going to be easy.

-Curse you double post!-

Sprout waved Ruffles off as he left, "I'mma be down there a lil' later!"

I have me some business to get done here first, though.

"... Stole it from a magazine or something, true story, just, you know, keep doing what you're doing."

Lilith's head sank further as Sprout moved his hands up her neck, pressing her vertebrae between his thumbs. Too confident for his own good, he decided to strike up a conversation, "Everyone 'round here always tells me 'bout all the pussy'ther lockn' in all the time. Why's it you never share yer own tales about mount'n some, uh... smoken' meat?" He cringed at his own words. "I'm sorry, that was uh... kinda vulgar, huh?"

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"I see no reason to wrinkle your nose with my presence any longer than necessary, so I guess I'll see you when the job's done."

Dio nodded to them as the pair left, followed by the majority of remaining hunters. The woman who had run her mouth didn't linger either.

"Best hunters on the planet' mean we should ignore that? Cause I still just want to get this over with. I'll assume Pixie uses a gun, has a ship?"

Dio looked up at the man from behind his desk and titled his head inquisitively, "Why yes, a large ship and several guns. I do not wish to sound rude, but have I seen you somewhere before?" Of course, Dio already knew exactly who it was he was dealing with. He had run thorough background checks on the lot of them. This one was an interesting case to be sure. Despite that Dio decided it best to lead him on. A wise man always holds on to his cards until the right time.

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Dante had spent the better part of his day catching up on the train robbery. It was high profile shit and considering the big guns Dio had brought in to handle it... well, let's just say he'd have to be completely insane to pass up this opportunity, "Yeah, yeah brotha, I gotcha." Dante shifted the corded phone from one shoulder onto the other as he fingered his jacket pocket for another cigarette. "Uh huh. Yep. Fuck son, really? You know he's gonna get a fuck-ton of heat from Pixie, right? Like shit, what da' fuck's dat sucka thinkn'?! Fer real? That info's out already? Well if she's send'n some sucka's to deal with him in Boomhower he's as good as fucked. Not sure the Banditos'er gonna do much good there."

He lit his cigarette and took a log drag as his informant continued on, "Cool, cool. Here in Feroxi? Well that old fuck Bart's lucky to be gettn' outta dis' alive. Fer real. Yeah, I think I can make some stones off this shit. Thanks again fer the info. It's some premium shit. 'Aight, later brotha'."

Dantes hung up the phone and started for the door. He'd heard an old acquaintance of his was in town for the Basilio job. She'd be more than happy to pay for the information he'd come across.

"I'm sorry, that was uh... kinda vulgar, huh?"

Lilith cradled her forehead in one hand, shaking her head gently and chuckling.

"You gotta stop talkin' like that slag you call a mother..." She took a long drag from her cigarette, contemplating the boy's question. "It's been about six months since I last mount'd some smoken' meat." She said, imitating Meredith's accent. "Some guy in a bar somewhere, I can't even remember his name or where we even were. It was during some down time between a job, and I was drunk. Quite drunk." She furrowed her brow, "I don't know, I don't really think about that kind of thing very often, I mean, I never really seek it out, it just... happens, you know?" She paused for a second, "What am I saying? Of course you don't know."

She sighed and reached up to her shoulders, placing her hands on his, tapping them gently. "Don't worry, you're a handsome boy, in the right circumstances, the birds will be crawling all over ya. If only I were 5 years younger..." She grinned, leaving him with that thought.

Kayneth

"Why yes, a large ship and several guns. I do not wish to sound rude, but have I seen you somewhere before?"

"I meant her personally." Kayneth sighed, then raised an eyebrow. Had he ever actually met the guy, or was that just his brother? Probably both... Red didn't like talking to people too much. Especially not other lords, they were too important for him to muck up the business end.

"Er, yeah. Probably. Met my brother, Aeron? Aeron Vance?" Red shifted uncomfortably on his feet, hoping to get going soon.
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Warren

Warren tried not to look disappointed, the priest didn't offer anything fun. Tit for tat was one of the best ways to spend time on a ship, until eventually the crew got too tired of your shit. Then apologies and cake! Or bloodletting, both had happened in the past. Some people were simply too sensitive...

"Fuck it, think I'll visit the prisoners." Warren growled to himself, heading off to that direction.
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Vergil

"Close the door." Vergil commanded, looking up from his book long enough to see who it was visiting him. No appointment, how rude, but it was part of the original crew. A lieutenant named.... Lucy? Lucy, probably. He offered a false smile, returning to his book as she spoke.

"Meeting in 30. Our 'leader' demands it." she reminded him, with a wink. Vergil waved her off, hopping to his feet on the hardwood floor. The Orphanage had a decent library, he made damned sure of that much at least. All his personal revenue went into improving the kids home, probably till the end of time. But at this time, no more distractions, he had to have a Q&A.

Vergil loved his boots. He had made sure that they were soft sole, to make as little noise with each step as possible. With some effort, he was all but silent, like a wolf hunting. He made his way through the orphanage to the back room, a warehouse they blasted a hole into. Covered it with a brilliant bit of art from one of their secretly talented pickpockets.

But what's more, it was a door.

A burlier gentleman opened the door, Vergil ducked under the painting giving a quick thanks as he went. He was known as the top lieutenant, and was given easily some of the worst gear they had. A butterfly knife as a personal weapon? Might as well be asking for death, most scoffed. Wasn't his fault they couldn't see the flair and use of the weapon... The fireworks also added a certain something to his performance.

The warehouse was a giant cube shaped building, with a single office up a small flight of stairs that hung out of the wall, overlooking the whole place. Lights hung on strings, dropped from the ceiling and had a collection of wires that led into the office, and the boxes were stacked high. There were several people, of all ages, sitting on them and conversing.

How long ago had it been 5 orphans and an understanding old woman?

Almost like it was yesterday...

A voice resounded through the room, inhuman, mechanic, untraceable. Vergil furrowed his brow, listening closely to the words, some slowed some sped up. It was difficult to tell if he even had the colony accent, English or some such earth thing. Others piped up to answer the voice as it gave orders and directions, jobs for agents and the names of those who could help.

It enthralled everyone else, but Vergil found himself more checking over pronunciation. It was important, after all, to get these dramatic speeches right. Only once in a life time you got all the big players in the gangs together, and even that was solely to make sure they knew each others faces vaguely. The sojourn over was usually looked over, but location was everything. The warehouse was built over the sewer system, and had several exits for quick escape.

"And yoou, MIstER Vergil..."

"Yes?" He answered, a cocky smile on his face.

"You willll stay after, for A... SEcReT posting." Vergil nodded towards the office, and the voice cut out, with a small motto of theirs.

"May the shadows cover you all." The people stayed still for a second, before they all started to leave. It was 3 in the morning, they were all likely heading off to bed now. Hopefully no one would notice the influx and report it.

The sheriff was just leaving, in fact. Vergil gave a small salute as he passed, heading towards the stairs. He hated the stairs, they made loud noises as he ascended... He pushed the door open, and walked inside. A few moments and a few words with the individual inside, and he was on his way out again, with his report. Rumors, heresay, but a posting for mercs was put out. Iron Maiden didn't enter the crosshairs of the Alley Shadows too often, and neither did kidnapping victims.

But add both them with a dash of Dio, and you have quite the interesting hook. Study the files, find contacts, find the ship. The teenager sneered, this'd be an easy enough job. Infiltration would be the hard part, but he could pull it off. He ducked under the painting again, too busy reading to note who held it for him. He nearly finished by the time he found his library again, then he'd have to start proofreading. It'd be another pleasantly long night for him.

Information. That is what Viola would need to acquire, if she was going to make any sort of headway in the search for the Iron Maidens and the kidnapped Lady Elizabeth. Problem was, she had very few leads to work with here, but there was one man in the city who could help her, Dante. The two had known each other for about three to four years; ever since Viola disposed of some gangsters who had been chasing down Dante, in retaliation for him selling them out to the long arm of the law.

Relationship wise, they were somewhere between acquaintance and friend; not knowing anything personal about one another, but enough to know when they might be able to help each other out in times of need. And right now was one of those times, all she had to do was wait, and eventually he'd find her. For the time being, she was sitting at a table outside a large cafe, having a drink, and letting the world pass.

"Let's pray you've been keeping an ear to the ground Dante, and know about the current events." Viola thought as she took a sip of her drink.

"You could at least offer us something to eat before you drown us in your words. We haven't had a thing to eat since yesterday."

"Quite right." The Gentleman agreed, before turning back to the door. As luck would have it, the sight of Warren making his way down towards the room where the two captives were being held met him when he looked outside.

"Could we possibly get a pot of tea, and perhaps a plate of jam sandwiches. Our guests are becoming rather famished." He asked politely, before turning back to Elizabeth and Josephine.

"The tea is ghastly stuff, I'll warn you now, but I suppose we all must make do in times of hardship."

"Could we possibly get a pot of tea, and perhaps a plate of jam sandwiches. Our guests are becoming rather famished."

"Get Sprout to do it." Smiles replied, amicably and not breaking stride. Though it seemed the Gentleman had returned to talking to their guests, badmouthing their tea... had he ever seen anyone but Lilith drink that crap? Smiles raised the scarf over his scarf over his scars as he entered into view.

"The tea is ghastly stuff, I'll warn you now, but I suppose we all must make do in times of hardship."

"Some more hardship than others. In the captains cabin one day, prisoners quarter the next?" Warren shrugged, looking over their prisoners for the first time. Two noble women, not exactly in their best condition. They both also looked more annoyed than scared. Warren placed his gun by the door, and did a mock bow to the nobility.

"Prisoners aren't my thing, but I think uncomfortable is how we want em."

"The tea is ghastly stuff, I'll warn you now, but I suppose we all must make do in times of hardship."

"More ghastly than the ale?" Josephine asked. Just the mere mention of it put that awful taste back in her mouth. The other man whom the Gentleman spoke to bowed to them, not out of respect but of jest.

"Prisoners aren't my thing, but I think uncomfortable is how we want em."

"Soft, thou would'st care for Lady Maribel's wounds, only to shun her hunger?" Maybe the captain did not speak to her underlings about Elizabeth. That seemed to be the only explanation for why they would take care of her one day, only to ignore her the next. "Hark, Lady Maribel needs her strength after your treatment last night."

"Prisoners aren't my thing, but I think uncomfortable is how we want em."

"You're captain would disagree." replied The Gentleman, a little coolly. " Captives they may be, but Meredith has made it clear in no uncertain terms that she considers these two ladies to be of great value; and should either of them suffer due to neglect at the hands of her crew, her displeasure would cause some discomfort for all involved."

Warren was one of those underlings whom it suited to pretend that they were masters of their own actions. The Gentleman had met his like before, and it made no matter. While rank may be a concept that Warren was unable of unwilling to respect, the matter of how strong captains deal with dissent was a simple enough contract to grasp. Even the so-called 'Mad Dogs' would follow orders same as other men, and nobody who served on the Iron Maiden went long without developing a healthy fear of its Matron.

"It's settled then." he continued, not waiting for Warren to retort. "We shall have matters of import to discuss to pass the time."

"We shall have matters of import to discuss to pass the time."

Elizabeth gritted her teeth. Her hunger forgotten, all that remained now was a blatant resentment for the men before her, "Then get on with it, would you? You're a man who doesn't bother with something lest he's working some kind of angle. You've got something to gain from this, am I correct? I may be naive to how the bandit world functions, but I know an opportunist when I see one."

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"Don't worry, you're a handsome boy, in the right circumstances, the birds will be crawling all over ya. If only I were 5 years younger..."

Sprout's efforts slowed as he pondered the possibilities. He really didn't know the first thing about having a girlfriend, but he imagined he'd do a lot of things like this. Lilith turned her head to see what was up, snapping him out of his daze. He picked up the pace once more, "Well... what would it be like if you were 5 years younger?"

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"Er, yeah. Probably. Met my brother, Aeron? Aeron Vance?"

Dio nodded, "Yes, that would be the one." Noticing the man's anxious behavior Dio waved him off. "Well, I don't want to hold you up. Your... colleagues have already begun the hunt. Wouldn't want you to fall behind."

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Viola had been right to wait her contact out. Dante was nothing if not consistent. After waiting outside the cafe for a long while she had taken a large sip to finish off her drink. By the time she'd placed it back on the table Dante had taken a seat across from her. A bright, white grin greeted her, "It's been awhile since I've seen you in the capitol. I hear you're workin' fer Dio now. Is that right?"

"Well... what would it be like if you were 5 years younger?"

"Or if you were 5 years older." She grinned, "Nah, I'm just teasing ya." She waved a hand dismissively.

A few moments passed, a look of thoughtful contentment on her face. "I've known you since you were yay big" She held out a hand. "You're not my brother, because that would be weird, but you are my family..." She paused for a second, "Which still sounds creepy, okay, you're not family, but you're a very close friend, we grew up together, but at different stages of our childhood." Another few moments passed.

"There was a boy at the orphanage, you remind me of him, he was around your age, always getting himself into trouble, and getting into really deep trouble on a couple of occasions. He wasn't as sweet as you though"

She turned to him, looking him in the eyes and smiled gently "I've always had some dumb kid I've had to take care of, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

"It's been awhile since I've seen you in the capitol. I hear you're workin' fer Dio now. Is that right?" A voice asked Viola, turning around she saw Dante had taken the seat opposite her and flashing one of the biggest grins imaginable.

"Dante, it certainly has been a while since I was here last, a pleasure to meet you again. You would be right in that assumption that I am working for Lord Dio Basilio; though given a first impression and his overall attitude, suffice to say I dislike the man, can't see what Lady Elizabeth sees in him, but who am I to know about marriage between Nobles?" Viola said with a shrug before continuing.

"From what I gathered, he seems to have a grudge against the leader of the Iron Maidens, a Miss Pixie if I recall, that appears to be the focus of his attention." Viola said as she drummed her finger on the table briefly before steering the conversation back on course.

"Anyway, no doubt you have heard of the news surrounding the heist that the Maiden's pulled off the other day, along with the taking hostage of several Nobles, Lady Elizabeth being one of them. What I need is information Dante, anything that might point me in the direction of where to begin on this hunt. And I figured you'd be the sort of person to know such things, your clever like that."

Having walked into what must be the seediest bar in Feroxi, Duke flipped a weighty carbon stone to a doorman as he and Eddie moved to the door of a backroom. Instead of going in, Eddie nudged the door ajar, and peered through it. Seven men sat around a circular table, some still with yellowed old playing cards in their hands. Beard was one of those who had not folded. He was a gangly man, in a careworn grey leisure suit, with battered old pork pie hat and aviator sunglasses. But his most distinctive feature was the titular facial hair. The thick, curly beard was long enough to be tucked into his belt and was itself thickly greying.

The dealer put down the last card, and motioned for everyone to reveal their hands when it became clear everyone was either content with their wagers or else all in. A thickset man in suspenders and a greasy work shirt appeared to win the hand, taking in chips and even actual carbon into a mounting pile.

"Alright, B. Time t'pay up. Y'all're tapped, and ya know it."

Beard sipped at a chipped glass of scotch with a surprisingly convincing air of demureness, before speaking. When he spoke, it was in a voice made raspy and husky by years of smoke and whisky. "Well see, I ah... I don't have m'buy in money with me per se--" That was all he could say before the men around him were on their feet, and two of them had him by the shoulders. The man who had won backhanded Beard hard enough that he would have sprawled had he not been in the iron grip of two other men, who looked to be squeezing his arms into jelly. Meanwhile, the man who had dealt the round drew an ugly, stubby buck knife from inside a jacket pocket. "This is the last fucken straw, ya strung out old bastard. You can't pay money, y'can pay with yer last fucken meal."

That was when Eddie and Duke strode through the door. What happened next was a haze. Initially, they tried to talk down the gamblers with murder in their eyes, but one pulled a length of iron chain from under his seat and lashed at Eddie, who caught it with his plated hand, and yanked it hard enough to break a link. Sighing, he peeled off his gloves, revealing the plated left hand with the metal bones, although its unharmed fingers still flexed with dexterity. Then the six men came at them in a frenzy. Chairs flew, tipped, were swung and broke, as were various bones. A brown bottle was smashed on the edge of a table by someone for a weapon.

By the end of it, the large round table had lost three of its eight legs, and only two chairs were unharmed. One of which a surprisingly chirpy Beard was sat jauntily on, a cut under one eye, sipping from a fresh glass of scotch while Eddie and Duke stood before him with their arms folded. Duke was nursing a split lip and scowling over the left lense of his sunglasses being cracked, and though Eddie looked unharmed, he'd taken a few nasty bruises to the ribs. But all in all, injuries were minor. The other six men had come off far worse. Two were dead, three were unconscious with various broken bones, and the last had been whimpering on the floor for a few minutes while his blood stained the rug, before starting to drag himself uselessly towards the closed door. Eddie was no doctor, but he doubted the man would walk again. Grunting as he yanked his bowie knife from the gut of one of the deceased, he wiped it off on someone's shirt and sheathed it, then straightened up, tugging his gloves back on.

"So, Beard," he said conversationally.

Warren

"Then get on with it, would you? You're a man who doesn't bother with something lest he's working some kind of angle. You've got something to gain from this, am I correct? I may be naive to how the bandit world functions, but I know an opportunist when I see one."

"Heh, good one." Warren said, grinning widely and accidentally letting his scars poke out over his scarf. He raised it as he looked at the Gentleman. Interrupting a sentence was usually punished by savage beating, but he didn't feel murdering a guest of the Captain would be the greatest of ideas. No matter how much he seemed to be asking for it...

"Well." Warren began conversationally, sitting down opposite the prisoners. He slowly took his katana off his back, leaning on it. "I'd hate to leave you alone with him; I am supposed to make sure you're both safe, right?" Warren pulled his scarf up again, looking between the two.
________________________________________________________________________________________________
Kayneth

"Yes, that would be the one. Well, I don't want to hold you up. Your... colleagues have already begun the hunt. Wouldn't want you to fall behind."

The albino nodded, starting towards the door. "'S what I'll do," he said, pushing past the servant who probably couldn't see him over his nose. He didn't have many contacts, really. At least not here. He'd start around the tavern or some such, but he didn't truly care. He began wandering for a bit.
________________________________________________________________________________________________
Vergil

An informative reading session, though he only truly recognized a name. Plenty of cross checking though; seemed the world was truly rather small. Lilith could make a decent entry point to the ship (and it certainly wouldn't hurt seeing her again), or he could pick up the psycho's old 'friend', a dwarf bodyguard by the name of Tobin. Last but not least, a rival ship, with a crew that could attack as a distraction.

All had pros, all had cons. In the end, his heart and his head aligned on the first option; Attempt to sneak on and find Lilith. Then the work could begin. He brushed his hair out of his face, looking at his bandaged wrists as his hands blindly groped for a tape recorder. He had taken to wearing a wetsuit under his hoodie, but it always left his wrists exposed.

The two white X's... permanent reminders to never trust a noble. He shuddered with sudden rage, trying to supress it to get the orders done. How were the shadows to act without their leader, afterall?

"I am supposed to make sure you're both safe, right?"

The Gentleman gave Warren his coldest smile.

"Surely you do not think me so monstrous as that?" he asked "Though rest assured, should I ever conspire to harm our guests, your presence would be most welcome... And you wrong me, my lady." he said, turning back to Elizabeth. "I grow sentimental in my old age, and so I have been drawn to this fit of gallantry."

The Gentleman let the statement hang there for a moment, drinking in the disbelief and suspicion, before chuckling to himself.

"Oh, very well. I see that your naivety only extends so far after all. Allow me to be frank then..." The Gentleman's change in tone was subtle. As courteous as ever, but also with a stern, businesslike edge. It was a tiny transformation, almost invisible to those who did not know to look for it, and yet all of a sudden the man seemed 5 years younger, and 10 times more menacing.

"My angle is quite simple. I have just invested rather a lot in the continued health and welfare of this ship and its crew, for the near-future anyway; and as we speak your husband to be is exploring every resource within his considerable reach to try and have us all killed. If I was one for taking things personally, I would be insulted that I wasn't his first port of call. Perhaps Dio is willing to sacrifice expertise in exchange for the security of being the cleverest man in the bargain? Regardless, I intend to disappoint him. For that, I may need your help; help the likes of which I will not receive as long as you continue to believe that Dio Basilio has an ounce of chivalry within those freakishly large bones of his."

Ruffles meandered down the hall, with a tin tray in his hands. After leaving Sprout to his fondling, he'd checked around and nobody had any idea whether anybody had fed the prisoners. The tray was loaded up with a few slices of brown bread, some rashers of bacon (lukewarm at this point, but oh well) and a couple of rather small apples, as well as a small jug of water and two tin cups. Best he could do on short notice.

He backed through the door into the cell, and turned to see the Gentleman and Warren stood over the two women. "Hope I'm not interrupting a double date here, guys." Giving Elizabeth and Jo a casual grin, he nodded at the two men. "I always said Genty n' Warren would make a cute couple." He set the tray down between the two women, and straightened up. He thought they might be a little disappointed with the paltry meal, so he added with a glance at Elizabeth, "remember, an apple a day keeps the me away."

========================================================

"So yer wantin' to know about them there pirates what lifted those ivory lassies, eh? Well, what makes ya think a dried up ol' bastard like me knows anything?"

"Because you hear everything, you two-faced old asshole," replied Eddie casually. "You're like a fly on the wall in every possible way. Now fess up, or we'll be off. And might be we'll tell the men out front why their backroom's all fucked to hell."

Beard knocked back his drink, and smacked his lips theatrically. "Yar. Might be I know the rough area where their ship's at. But, uh... my memory's a little hazy. Hard to concentrate with that empty feeling in my pockets, ya know?"

Duke snorted. "We save your goddamn life, and you expect us to pay?"

"Hey, I din' ask you to get yerselves involved. And don't think I didn't see ya peakin' in. If y'all can't live without my witty an' engaging repartee, that's yer problem. My problem is keeping food on my plate and liquor in my gut. So gimme."

The next several minutes were spent in the partially silent haggling of men who have long conducted business with each other and know each other's demands, and drag it out more for ritual than expectation of a better deal. Still, for such sensitive and immediately useful information, Eddie had to fork over most of the contents of the pouch of carbon he had lifted from the drug runners, to the point where he just gave over the bag after skimming a few stones and returning them to a jeans pocket.

"Alrighty then," said Beard cheerfully. Producing a grease stained scrap of paper and a pencil from a burlap sack under the table (the stench of raw spirits marked it as his as easily as if he'd sewn his name into the thing) he began drawing freehand, gabbling as he talked. It wasn't idle chatter, but rather actual information, and after several minutes, he gave over the piece of paper, containing a map of an area that looked to have been drawn by a skilled cartographer. Because that was what Beard had been before he'd become a rum smelling sponge, dispensing information to the highest bidder. Above the small map was a string of coordinates.

Eddie pocketed the map. He'd worked Beard long enough to know he needn't question the validity of the information, but still he asked, "how is it you know where the Maiden's at, anyhow?"

Beard spread his hands theatrically, and boomed in a voice far too loud for the room they were in, "I know all and see all!" Then he got to his feet. "Now if that's all you two fine, upstanding sellers of men's freedoms need from me, I'd best be off." Pausing to rifle unconscious or dead men's pockets, taking a few stones and even a snub nosed revolver which he stowed into the burlap sack, he went to the door, stepping heavily on the crippled, bleeding man's back (the man had drifted into unconsciousness long before any sensitive information had been disclosed, but he still whimpered in his sleep) and disappeared out into the common room.

The two bounty hunters waited a couple of minutes, and then went out too, moving towards their two quads. "Alright, then. The Cave."

===============================================================

"Usual rate, hon," said Whiskey, smiling at the young man over her drink. The elderly woman, the young noble's mother and wife to the hostage being discussed peered owlishly at Whiskey when she thought she couldn't see. No doubt the probability about her dear sonny boy having impure thoughts about what she saw as some filthy half breed was a real thorn in her foot, and so that was the reason for the flirtatious edge to Whiskey's tone. Not that the boy was bad looking, but he was Noble. Egh.

The young man stammered slightly, then picked up. "And... what was that rate again, ma'am?"

"One half kilo. Half of which now, and half again when your dried up old daddy is safely back smoking his pipe and talking down to ya."

The old woman spluttered. "A half kilo? Why, that's as much as we could possibly hope to pay for the ransom alone! You can't be serious!"

"Oh but I am. And don't you piss around. You know who I am, so you know I been working this business since when you weren't entirely dry down there, so don't try to take me for a dumbass. You could afford to pay way, waaaay more than that for ransom with just what your dear hubby makes in one afternoon and still have enough to buy a fucking house. Be thankful I'm not deciding to line my own pockets further."

"Well we have our own men and are quite capable--"

"Oh I'm sure you are, deary. Except if I wasn't worthwhile, you wouldn't be lowering your crusty old ass to talk with me now, would you?" She gave the young man a wink. "Trust me, hon, I'm worth every penny." In the actual serious sense it was meant, this was true. Whiskey was experienced at sniffing out deception and traps during hostage exchanges and negotiation, and the good graces she held with various nobles, not to mention, more importantly the Rock's various crime families meant few were likely to gyp her in their dealings. If anyone could guarantee the safe return of anyone, it was Whiskey Fifer.

After more sounds of indignation from the elder noble had subsided, Whiskey continued. "So, do we have an accord?"

"... I suppose we do."

"Shake on it?"

After some hesitation, the woman put out her hand with a look on her face as though she were about to handle dung. Just for that, Whiskey spat in her palm before shaking the hand, and fancied with amusement she could feel the old bitch's skin crawl. "Deal."

"I've always had some dumb kid I've had to take care of, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Sprout blushed a bit and looked about the room as he continued the massage. The rest of the crew was far too hungover to pay them any mind, "Hey, I can be smart when I wanna be! Besides, ain't I the one take'n care of you right now?"

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"What I need is information Dante, anything that might point me in the direction of where to begin on this hunt. And I figured you'd be the sort of person to know such things, your clever like that."

Dante's grin grew larger, "I may know a few things... for the right price. I'll tell you straight up I don't know where the Maiden's at, but I do know where some of her crew's gonna be. For my standard rate I may be able to divulge who and where."

Unfortunately Dante's contact hadn't given him everything. Truth was he didn't have the ability to pay top-dollar for the premium intel, but what he did have was good enough. He could offer her an approach few others wouldn't think to take.

Now all she had to do was fork over the cash.

***********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"... For that, I may need your help; help the likes of which I will not receive as long as you continue to believe that Dio Basilio has an ounce of chivalry within those freakishly large bones of his."

Elizabeth marched towards the Gentleman, clenching her fists in rage, "Don't talk such rot!" She stopped a few paces from him, her golden eyes burning holes into his. "What do you know of my betrothed? He is an honest and valiant man! He---"

"Hope I'm not interrupting a double date here, guys."

Elizabeth stared at the Gentleman a few moments longer and turned back to sit next to Josephine. It appeared food had finally arrived.

"... remember, an apple a day keeps the me away."

"What happened to the boy? He said he'd return with bread for us."

"Hey, I can be smart when I wanna be! Besides, ain't I the one take'n care of you right now?"

"I ain't gonna thank you for what you should be doing anyway." Lilith pouted, "Nobody takes care of me, it's about damn time I was pampered like the delicate flower I am" She stretched her arms out in front of her, cracking her laced fingers outward, releasing a rather pathetic belch. A few seconds passed with a mock nervous smile on her face. "That was s'posed to be far more impressive."

She looked around the canteen, it was quite a bit more full than when she entered.

The latest victims of last night's celebration.

"I may know a few things... for the right price. I'll tell you straight up I don't know where the Maiden's at, but I do know where some of her crew's gonna be. For my standard rate I may be able to divulge who and where." Dante said with a huge grin. Viola meanwhile was busy digging out a handful of carbon to pay the man with from her coat pocket before placing it on the table in a neat little pile.

"Well, I guess it pays to take whatever I can get Dante; as Lord Basilio was rather light with the details. He simply told us to bring his betrothed safely back to him, and to deal with Pixie. I believe that amount on the table should serve as payment; so whenever your ready Dante." Viola said as she leaned back in her chair a little.

Elizabeth seemed to like this Dio guy. Warren supposed the Nobility should like each other, but he heard that that guy was a head assholier than the assholes he worked with. Almost impressive, in a way, but there must've been a soft side to win over this lady so much. She was on a ship filled with legitimately armed guards, though luckily Warren both allowed and encouraged random acts of violence.

'I'd make a shit captain.'

Smiles grinned, and shook his head, though not really out of mocking for the girl. He understood love. Then Ruffles came in, with food! Apparently they didn't just make Sprout do it... for whatever reason. The kid could handle food delivery... hopefully.

"Hope I'm not interrupting a double date here, guys. I always said Genty n' Warren would make a cute couple."

"A bit too fancy for my blood. All of em, really." Warren responded, allowing sarcasm to drip into his voice, throwing the sword between his hands. Just as a reminder he had it, though he had the courtesy to keep it in it's sheath. Didn't want to scare them after all.

"... remember, an apple a day keeps the me away."

"Too bad a case of the Smiles is till death. Except maybe fire. Nobodies tried that yet."

"What happened to the boy? He said he'd return with bread for us."

"Ah, now I'm glad I didn't go fetch for for em. They'd be over stuffed. Mix that with Genty's vernacular and we'd be worrying about comas."

The Gentleman took little notice of Warren and Ruffles' dialogue, preferring to address Lady Elizabeth.

"What do I know of Dio Basilio? Rather more than you do, I fear. Though, I'll admit, not near so much as Meredith." he answered solemnly. "Oh I'm sure he can be perfectly charming when he stands to gain something. It comes with the territory after all. However, I am something of an authority when it comes to false charm, and I can assure you that I can spot it in anyone. You may see your betrothed again, in good time, and when you do, I pray that you observe how he treats his inferiors, rather than his equals, for that is how you'll get the true measure of the man."

The Gentleman reached into his inside pocket, slowly, so as not to cause alarm. When he withdrew, he held in his hand a black plastic tape recorder.

"Meredith would be content to tell you that Lord Basilio is an awful man, and to spare you the details. I am not so kind. The truth can be such a terrible thing, it's no small wonder why I lie so much. However, sometimes a little honesty can be refreshing, the sharp taste that cuts through a cloying sweetness, wouldn't you agree? The truth is that Dio Basilio is such a tortured soul. A life managing a Empire as large has his is one full of strife. Deals fall though, land is contested, workers lay down their tools in protest, and scavengers are forever stealing scraps of meat from his table. These problems plague him grievously, day by day. I am a problem solver at heart, and more than once has your beloved come to me for respite from his woes."

When Ruffles arrived with their food, Elizabeth returned to her seat beside Josephine. The woman kept her eyes on the Gentleman the whole time, waiting for any sudden movements. Fortunately he made none, this time anyway.

"What happened to the boy? He said he'd return with bread for us."

"It matters not. Please, Lady Maribel, eat. Save your strength." She motioned for the young lady to take first pickings of the food, while she focused her attention back at the Gentleman as he spoke further about Dio.

"The truth is that Dio Basilio is such a tortured soul. A life managing a Empire as large has his is one full of strife. Deals fall though, land is contested, workers lay down their tools in protest, and scavengers are forever stealing scraps of meat from his table. These problems plague him grievously, day by day. I am a problem solver at heart, and more than once has your beloved come to me for respite from his woes."

"I can speak for the Basilios' generosity and support. They hath been our allies for many years. We provide for each other when needed, lest we all fall. If they verily are a foe, wherefore would they have wrought sympathy and council to us in our time of need? Answer me that!"

"What happened to the boy? He said he'd return with bread for us."

Ruffles shrugged. "At this moment in time? He's probably changing his pants."

"I can speak for the Basilios' generosity and support. They hath been our allies for many years. We provide for each other when needed, lest we all fall. If they verily are a foe, wherefore would they have wrought sympathy and council to us in our time of need? Answer me that!"

Ruffles doubled over laughing. After what must have been several minutes, he regained some self control, and said, "it's easy to be generous when you'll never run out." Wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, he headed back out the door. "Remember kids, don't make eye contact with Warren for more than five seconds, or he'll bite."

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