Chapter 8: The Shadow of Valor
Sir Bryson stared at the stream of financial figures before him with mixed emotions. While his painful efforts to notate the fluctuations of Frost’s wealth were physically frustrating, what concerned him most was the numbers themselves, which seemed to be dipping into Frost’s reserves.
‘What could she possibly hope to gain by building a hospital in the slums after all?’
Bryson could only assume Cerberus was involved somehow, but his knowledge of the secret group Maura claimed to be a part of was limited to a few names and the figures and numbers that came from Frost’s accounts. ‘Always deductions. Never profits. It’s not a business then.’ He knew better than to dig any further.
Bryson sighed and watched his left hand betray him yet again as his fingers twitched of their own accord and streaked a line across the incomplete total deductions at the bottom of the page.
“Damn!” He hissed softly. The tremors in his hand started anew, and he hastily returned the quill to its ink jar. These spasms were caused by mental anxiety and fatigue more than any muscle damage, or so the physician who had prescribed him sleeping pills and opium claimed.
Bryson curled the stiff bandaged fingers of his left hand, not quite able to make a fist, and then opened the bottom drawer to his right. One large and one small bottle clinked together softly before Bryson pulled them free and set them on his desk beside a drinking glass.
A few moments later, three splashes of alcohol and a dash of laudanum, laced with opium, swirled in the glass before him. Bryson downed it in two gulps and closed his eyes as the mixture of alcohol and medicine burned down his throat.
Naturally, the physician had been quite curious about how Bryson’s left hand came to be separated from all but two of his fingernails. Bryson vaguely remembered spinning some story about a late payment on a gambling debt, which seemed to satisfy the elderly doctor.
The truth, after all, was not something he dared repeat, not after waking up in his apartment, semi-conscious and delirious with fever. The memory of the masked man bandaging his fingers while another thug tossed the portrait of Bryson’s sister’s family on the pillow beside them.
“Keep your mouth shut, and we won’t touch them.”
Simple instructions that were easy enough to follow and easier still to remember every time Bryson looked at his damn hand. Fever or not, he moved out of the apartment that same afternoon.
Bryson returned the bottles to their drawer, determined to pace himself by the physician’s instructions, especially on a day like today when his young but clever client would be visiting.
The guard seated beneath the barred window beside the bank’s front door dropped his tilted chair’s front legs against the floor and stood abruptly. Bryson cautiously raised his hand to the handle of the top drawer where a newly acquired pistol lay. It had cost him a small fortune to obtain through less than legal means, but he felt more secure with the knowledge that it could put a hole through a Fox’s mask—as long as Bryson managed to hit his target.
“It’s Lady Maura,” the guard announced as he moved to unfasten the bolts, which barred the door from the inside.
“Right.” Bryson unclenched his stiff fingers from the drawer handle. He hastily organized the mess in front of him then popped a candy mint into his mouth to mask the scent of alcohol. “Let her in.”
His hands fiddled nervously with the documents laid out for Lady Maura’s visit. His erratic heartbeat pulsed behind his eyes and ears. The smear of ink on the financial sheet caught his eye, and he hastily tucked it further inside the stack of paperwork. The last thing Bryson wished to show his bright, ambitious, and potentially dangerous client, the wretched mess he had become.
“It’s just fingernails. They grow back. You should be grateful.”
The callous words of the thug who had threatened his family filled Bryson with a flicker of rage quickly smothered by a deluge of shame.
The guard pulled the bank door open, and a tunnel of blinding sunlight washed across the hardwood floors. The young woman that entered was somehow less a child than the last time she had visited his office. Her black gown and ash-brown hair glittered in the golden rays while her ice-blue eyes moved swiftly in Bryson’s direction as she followed the guard.
‘A bewitching young beauty with enough secrets to get a man killed,’ Bryson reminded himself as the guard opened the barred door that separated his office from the front of the old bank.
“Lady Maura.” Bryson rose from his seat as she stepped through the bars. He detected a glimmer of discomfort in her expression as she surveyed the space. “Ah—I hope to put up some actual walls later—” though he liked the idea of leaving the bars there as an added visible layer of security and deterrence “—I know its not the most welcoming space right now.”
“As long as you are comfortable and our conversation remains private,” Maura replied with a side glance at the guard who escorted her.
“Ah—yes, Peter, would you mind waiting outside until we’ve finished.”
“As you wish,” Peter replied with a casual shrug.
Bryson pulled out one of the two chairs that faced his desk, and Maura took the offered seat as the front door closed behind Peter.
“Thank you,” Maura murmured as she folded her hands across the purse in her lap. She sat poised and composed, the picture of nobility. ‘So why is she tangled up with thugs and assassins?’
“You are looking well,” Bryson observed as he returned to his desk. “Today was your mother’s funeral, was it not?”
“Yes, I just left Gilwren,” Maura replied with a polite smile.
Not a flicker of grief was visible on her face, but Bryson could not bring himself to fault her for that. “And what of Lord Josiah?”
The faintest twinge of laughter graced her mouth as Maura tilted her head and offered a shrug. “For all I know, Josiah received a paupers grave—I did not take part in those arrangements.”
Bryson nodded. Though it was a disgrace for a noble not to receive a burial within the church’s boundaries—it came as no surprise to learn Lord Josiah had failed to pay for a plot in advance, and his family could ill afford one due to his lingering debts.
“How is—the pain?” Maura asked softly.
Her gaze flickered to his bandaged hands and away. Bryson smiled at the frown that formed along her brows and mouth as she fidgeted with her purse.
“Uncomfortable, but I’m managing,” Bryson responded reassuringly. He pushed the bowl of candy towards her with a smile. “I managed to catch up on the last two weeks of finances. Would you like to go over those in detail?”
“No, I trust you to tell me if there’s anything I need to be made aware of,” Maura replied as she raised her gaze from the candy bowl. “I would like to discuss our recruitment of the Cupto brothers. Have they signed their contracts?”
“Ah! Lord Devin has, but his older brother Lord Lazar is hesitant about running a hospital located in the slums. Lazar’s mentor is also concerned that working there will tarnish the older brother’s chances of becoming a royal physician in the future. Lazar is set to take the royal exam this month, and they have high hopes for his scores.”
“He is ambitious. I can’t fault him for that.” Maura twisted the purse strings around her fingers thoughtfully. “See if he will agree to lead one of the hospitals located in the capital than—let him name it too if he likes. Lord Devin will be a better fit for the slum hospital with his past experience.”
“Should I allow Lord Devin to name that one as well?” Bryson asked as he carefully wrote out a note. The laudanum had not taken effect. He gripped the quill tightly to hide the tremors and did his best to ignore the dull, stinging pain that spread from each damaged finger to his wrist as he wrote out each letter.
“As long as the name is suitable, I have no objections,” Maura answered with a sigh. “But Lord Devin will need another physician to assist. Unfortunately, I can’t count on the Lord Principal to provide other physicians should we need them.”
‘But why do you need these hospitals and physician’s in the first place?’ Bryson frowned, finished his note, and then pointed his quill to a pile of letters laid neatly beside him. “Lord Devin did send a letter of recommendation for a Mr. Eckard. He’s not a licensed physician but appears to be highly trained and has excellent references.”
“Highly trained but not a physician?” Maura tilted her head with a knowing smile. “A commoner then?”
“Precisely,” Bryson confirmed. He knew better than to mistake Maura’s reaction for rejection. Bryson had been a commoner before Frost used his connections with the Royal Merchant’s guild to purchase a letter of nobility.
“If Lord Devin recommends him, then let’s offer Mr. Eckard the same contract we gave the Cupto brothers.” Maura tapped the armrest thoughtfully for a moment. “Let’s add on a title while you’re at it.”
“A title?” Bryson raised a brow, already visualizing a new deduction from Frost’s reserves. “That’s rather more than we offered the Cupto brothers.”
“They are already the sons of a noble,” Maura replied with a dismissive wave. “Whoever runs the slum hospital with Lord Devin needs to have equal standing, or the rest of the staff will favor one over the other—or even outright ignore Eckard’s orders.”
“Then—should I put in a request to Lord Seymour?”
“We’ll include a letter of recommendation from Mr. Frost. I’ll see if I can’t get Lord Walter’s seal of approval as well. Eckard will still have to take and pass the physician’s exam before receiving his title, but if the Royal Physician’s Office recognizes him as a physician, that will be enough for now.”
“And if Mr. Eckard declines the offer?” The very idea sounded ridiculous the moment it left Bryson’s lips, but Maura considered it seriously for a moment before she answered.
“Make sure you present our reasons for making this request. Eckard can either run the slum hospital with Lord Devin as equals or take a lower position with equal pay. If Eckard doesn’t accept the title, he is free to change his mind later. In the meantime, we can continue to scout for other candidates.”
“The more physicians, the better, I suppose,” Bryson agreed with a curious glance at his client. Maura raised her gaze to his as if asking if he wanted to know more. Bryson looked away first. “Then, onto the matter of soap trade.”