V.O.C. of the People

A Long-Unexpected Party

Adam Van Hett fumbled with the cracker in his hand while reading through reports. Eventually, he popped it in his mouth, doing his best to savor its pristine texture and masterfully-crafted flavor while he lost himself in the numbers and figures before him. He’d always had a nose for a good deal, and had made an incredibly comfortable living for himself and his family by putting it to work. His colleagues all came from old money; outside of the odd merchant who’d struck a lucky sale, everyone that was anyone in the VOC was just the newest in a long line of very wealthy European families. These were the people who grew up surrounded by the comforts that come with power and influence—the kind of people who likely wouldn’t understand just how delicious this cracker was.

But Adam wasn’t like them. He’d never really been like them, but his incredible sense for a good deal (his weird sense, according to many of the rumor’s he’d overheard) had allowed him to buy his way in. The second son of a sail-maker and a seamstress, his future was always one of hard work and managing misery. He’d rejected that promise as readily as his brother had, but their paths had diverged almost immediately. Where Philip had needed the freedoms and promises of the open ocean, Adam needed the comforts and safety of money. There was an increasing sense globally that Adam’s needs were somehow more evil than his brother’s. He tried not to dwell on that too much, lest the guilt take him.

The reports were dry and full of numbers and charts. Neatly-lined pages filled to the margins with earnings, outflow, manifests, taxes, tariffs, bribes, and tabulations that led to tabulations. To many, these reports were a boring and bureaucratic process that were filled out to keep the higher-ups happy. To Adam, they were pure paydirt. A rich gold mine of information that no one else seemed to understand like he did. Many a long night had been frittered away studying reports like these, and in his darker hours, Adam would wonder if he’d wasted his youth doing just this. Two marriages and a dozen courtships had ended over his fanatical devotion to his work. His good looks, clean grooming, and massive wealth all had firmly cemented him as one of the most eligible bachelors in Amsterdam, but if you asked him, he’d struggle to remember the last time he’d been introduced to someone’s daughter. He was an invaluable asset to the company that people simply didn’t like being around for too long.

Which made the arrival of an invitation all the more surprising. “You’ve been invited,” Jarvis began, reading the small card aloud from the other side of Adam’s desk. “…To the Applewood ball, in Voledam, by the Lords and Ladies of Applewood. Wednesday the 30th of July, under the full moon.” The manservant lowered his arm and tucked it behind his back, still standing at alert. “Shall I make preparations for your attendance, sir?”

Adam mulled quietly, trying to determine his brother’s reason for inviting him to such an affair. Philip had made it abundantly clear that he no longer wished for Adam’s help or company, and in light of that, a gesture such as this seemed almost like an olive branch. Unlikely. “Philip would be displeased if I showed, I believe. The Applewood ball is a regular VOC affair, and my invitation is just the servants being polite. I think I will find myself entangled in an inescapable engagement that evening. Send a bottle of scotch from the cellar in apologies.” He picked the reports back up, to indicate the conversation’s completion.

“Very good, sir.” Jarvis nodded, and turned on his heel, but hesitated. He turned partially, so as to indicate that he was not yet defying orders. “In case it interests you, sir, there are many prominent young men in the VOC’s employ, including Misters De Witt and Andersen, who have not received invitations.”

Adam grumbled a bit at this, as a very small, very quiet part of his soul caused his stomach to flip. Despite his best efforts over the last two decades of his life, despite all the money, despite all the power and influence, despite being there for his parents when Philip wasn’t, there had always been a voice in the deepest parts of him that longed for his big brother’s approval. Adam rested his head on his hand for a moment, contemplating the social ramifications of attending this party. He came at it from a hundred different angles, analyzing every possible outcome and what they could mean in the future. Being spotted or rumored to be at the Applewood Ball, when virtually every other eligible bachelor in the VOC had been slighted by the hosts? Openly cavorting with his brother, the company’s most distrusted individual, in an informal setting? There were a thousand different ways him attending the Ball would end very poorly for him.

But the chance to see Philip having fun? An opportunity to see that salty, stubborn lark enjoy himself? He hadn’t seen his brother so much as crack a smile since Sarah, or heard him laugh in just as long. Hell, at this point, Adam would be happy to even see Philip’s crew having a good time. They’d gotten dour and surly since he’d seen them last—with good reason. And it would be nice to get away from those stuffy pricks De Witt and Anderson for a while.

Adam finally lifted his head, brushing back his hair as he did. “Clear my schedule for Wednesday evening, if you will, and please prepare my green jacket. The ball sounds lovely.”

Jarvis nodded sharply. “Very good, sir.”


Aart Driesen was grading papers when the courier came into his office. “Only a few things for you today, professor,” he’d said, before dropping the stack of envelopes on Driesen’s desk and heading back out. Aart had barely lifted his head in acknowledgement. His students were trying hard, but a lot of them were borderline hopeless, and needed his full attention.

It was several hours and glasses of beer later before the professor even touched the day’s post. A request for a letter of recommendation from a former student. Ongoing correspondence with a fellow professor in Berlin. An invitation to a party in Volendam. Another threat from a former researcher to go public with—wait what?

Aart flipped back to the small card, indicating his requested presence at the Applewood Ball. For a moment, he stared at it, utterly baffled at its mere existence. Alan had left their conversation doing the closest thing an ALAN can do to openly sobbing and screaming. Aart had no doubt Alan would rather jump into the ocean than see him again. Had there been a mistake?

The night was not kind to Aart. The invitation had reopened the wounds left by his conversation with Alan, and the guilt of what he’d done had come crashing down upon him utterly without mercy. Guided on his journey by alcohol and a profound sense of self-loathing, Aart spent the evening recounting every atrocity he’d committed in the pursuit of realizing his goal, and each time he’d turned a blind eye to the atrocities of others. When sleep finally claimed him, his dreams were filled with haunting faces and childlike cries for help. The world deserved Alan, but Alan did not deserve the world that had created him.

When Aart woke, he knew that attending the Ball would be the greatest insult he could deliver upon Alan, who he loved as his own son.

But before the day was done, he found himself wandering into a tailor’s shop, and pricing a new jacket. The next day, despite his internal protests, he paid a young boy to shine his shoes. In their reflection, he could see only shame. And that night, as he rooted through his drawers for his finer cufflinks, he repeated to himself that he couldn’t survive Alan rejecting him like that again.

But when Wednesday came around, Aart climbed into the carriage as dutifully as a soldier marching to war. All the fear, all the self-loathing, all the guilt; all of it had melted away at the opportunity to see his son again, and try to apologize one more time.

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Tales and Tears

The sound of waves gently lapping against the shore filled the air. The tide slowly receded, and would reach its low point as the sun finished setting. The foamy water left detritus on the white sand; wood, metal and cloth, pounded into small pieces by the tides.

Kharrakh trundled ashore, salty water dripping from the bones, leather, and reeds he wore as armor. From the branches of a nearby tree, a beautiful Vapaa perched, observing his return from the sea. The only male Orgoth on the island permitted to wear armor as fearsome as his, Kharrakh had caught the eyes of many such Vapaa looking to claim a strong grahf, but his celibacy was protected by Iures, and she had already demonstrated a willingness to enforce this order with violence. The Vapaa in the tree allowed her eyes and mind to wander, but kept her talons and teeth in their place.

Curling his lips in disdain at the verdant undergrowth, Kharrakh stepped into the jungle as he left the shore behind. He did not care for how green and bright this world was, and though he’d long since grown accustomed to it, walking through plants as vibrant as these was still an unpleasant experience for him. He wove his way through the jungle for a while, occasionally encountering other Orgoth along the way, who would immediately clear out of his path.

Eventually, Kharrakh came upon a clearing. A few small tents, old and dilapidated, lined the edges of the clearing, and a large stone-lined pit sat in the center. Around the clearing, several Vapaa turned at his arrival, their feathers bristling in excitement as they recognized him. “Kharrakh is here,” was whispered in furtive bursts as they positioned to get a good look at him; Iures’ most elite warriors reduced to fools in heat at the sight of his return. Kharrakh, doing his best to ignore them, strode into the clearing and stopped at the pit before kneeling and bowing his head.

The nearby bustle grew silent as Kharrakh heard a pair of heavy feet approach. “Kharrakh Ker-Gamayun,” a voice called out from across the pit. “What news do you bring Iures?” The speaker, Regurroth, was an old and very dangerous Vapaa, and spoke for Iures in all things. Even for Kharrakh, Orgoth speaking directly with Iures was heresy of the highest order.

“As it was said, Oberon’s arrival has come to pass,” Kharrakh spoke, straining to keep his voice strong and without tremble. Even a conversation with Iures’ speaker was no small honor, or feat. “The Beast Below is free of his prison as well, and both now move in this world.”

“You have seen this?” Regurroth spoke again.

“With my own eyes, I have seen it.” Kharrakh replied.

“And you return.”

The implication was clear. Our greatest foe has arrived, and you did not fall in battle against it. Instead, you fled.

“I return,” Kharrakh spoke, straining to keep the fear he felt out of his voice. “I return in honor, having sacrificed to rescue those in Oberon’s path.” The Vapaa in the clearing began to chitter at the admission.

“Innocent life is not a fitting substitute for glorious battle. Your time in this world has weakened your judgement.” The disdain in Regurroth’s voice was strong.

Kharrakh drew in a breath, calling upon the courage he’d been saving for this moment. “Gamayun was among those I rescued.” The clearing immediately fell silent. Kharrakh could feel his heart in his throat, and was surprised he’d even been able to force the words out. After what felt like a lifetime, a new voice rose from the silence.

“Of course you served your Okraik, warrior.” The voice was soft and gentle, utterly devoid of the hard derision that punctuated Regurroth’s. He’d heard it once before, on the worst day of his life. “For you are faithful and fearless, and place your Okraik above even your own ker-thin. If all Orgoth were as mighty as you, we would never need fear again.”

The voice washed over him like a warm tide, both refreshing and oppressive in its power. It took great restraint to keep his head lowered and not look upon the face of Iures, for he knew that even an Orgoth as revered as him still had limits to his freedom.

A delicate hand, soft and smooth, touched his cheek. Kharrakh felt every muscle in his body tighten as he tried to remain still. The hand caressed down his face to his chin, and slowly lifted his head until his gaze met hers.

Iures, the Great Mother, looked down at Kharrakh with a smile warmer than any he’d seen in six months. His eyes burned as he saw her, and he could feel tears rolling down his face despite the love in her eyes.

“Now, great Kharrakh, who liberated himself and fights for the greatest honors in this world. Tell me, where is my daughter now?”

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Letters to Paradise

Birds of Paradise,

We are alive. Our treasure hunt did not go exactly as planned. We had to flee the Devil and ended up passing through a crossway to Amsterdam. It grieves my heart to say that the Songbird went down. We have acquired a new ship, though it is not as nice as Paradise and does not come close to the splendor of the Songbird.

I worry about all of you and our ship. You may no longer be safe. This letter may even reach you too late. We have a port, here in Volendam, and I wish for you to bring the Paradise to it. It will be a long journey, but I know she can make it. I will be writing to Khylie and Kai, in hopes that they can be the extra hands you will need to get here safely. Please bring as much of our supplies as you can.

If it is safe to, please pass along a note to the Al-Azar factory, informing the ladies that work there that Farrah is alive and well, and will return to them when she can. As well as a note to Dion at Alan’s doctor’s office. Alan too is safe. I am sure they will both be sending their own letters, soon.

If things are as I fear, the city will be in danger very soon. If Dion would like, he is welcome to join the journey out here. I do not know when we will return. I do not know if we will return, but for now, this is my new port to call home. There is also a chef somewhere in the city, named Fabio, the invitation is outstretched to him as well. The Songbird may be gone, but I think it is time that her crew is reunited, and you have all proved yourselves worthy to be a part of that crew.

Even if you do not wish to bring the Paradise out here, find any way you can be safe. Any way. You are my Birds.

Captain Avinnia

Khylie,

The Paradise will call on you soon and I hope that my Birds will find you well. They will explain in more detail, but you are not safe. I have asked my crew to bring the Paradise to Volendam, and to offer to you and your brother to sail to my new port. I hope the danger has yet to find you. Whatever your decision, my friend, keep yourself safe.

Captain Avinnia

Kai,

The Paradise will call on you soon and I hope that my Birds will find you well. They will explain in more detail, but you are not safe. I have asked my crew to bring the Paradise to Volendam, and to offer to you and your sister to sail to my new port. I hope the danger has yet to find you. Whatever your decision, my friend, keep yourself safe.

Captain Avinnia

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A Letter from England

Avinnia,

I confess, when I received word that you lived, I wept all night. For years I’ve hoped that you’d survived your escape, but hearing that it was true felt like a wave made of pure relief crashing upon my head. The feeling was so overwhelming that I could barely breathe.

I cannot put into words the grief that fills my heart when I think of how I treated you. You are and always have been my beloved sister, and it was only because of the poison of our parent’s lies that I was able to be that horrible person you said goodbye to. It is no excuse for how I treated you, though, and I am heavy with shame at how deeply I failed you.

If anyone is incapable of earning your forgiveness, it is me. Please know that, should you decide to give me an opportunity to do so, I cannot imagine a greater joy than being your sister again. I will not ask you to tell me where you are—I understand fully how little you must trust me—but know that I have a good vessel and a seaworthy crew: I would like to come see you if you will allow me to.

Mr. Van Hett is the one who informed me of your well-being. He seems a godly and honest man. If he is any indication of the company you keep today, I feel even more desperate to return to your life; clearly you have grown into a good and whole woman, far more worthy of greatness than I ever was. The evil others saw in you—that I was tricked into seeing—was nothing more than a lie, born of envy and mistrust. You deserve all that is good in this life, Avinnia, and I hope with everything I am that you will have it.

I currently reside in Liverpool, in Britannia, where I will remain for some time. Should you find it in you to seek out correspondence to me, I’ve included my address with this letter. Ships travel here with sufficient regularity that it would not be hard for you to send something my way.

Be well, sister, and go forth in everything you do with all my love. All I have now, and all I owe you from before. You will be in my heart until the end of my days.

Aleid Elon

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The Pertinent Excerpts of the Science Journals of Professor Benjamin Reilly, Ph.D

Day one: This journal shall henceforth chronicle my experiments with the remarkable material known as orichalcum, which I intend to prove, beyond a shadow of any reasonable man’s doubt, is merely a misunderstood mineral, and not a mythological, magical substance; that all of its miraculous properties can be explained, after a fashion, with nothing more extraordinary than mundane scientific principles.

Day thirteen: My first postulation to be affirmed, albeit not thus far proven, is that proximity plays a role in orichalcum’s ability to affect the world around it. Indeed, my time spent studying it this week seems to have had side effects upon my person; beneficial ones, to be sure, but side effects nonetheless. To wit, my eyesight seems to have improved considerably, and my musculature has reached heretofore unknown (to myself, at least) levels of definition. The ramifications of this change remain to be seen, though it has made my task of studying much easier.

Day twenty-seven: Those who hold the pursestrings here at the University have cut back my funding, meaning I can no longer afford to feed and keep the lab animals that served as my test subjects. Those that could be of further use to other researchers have now been distributed to colleagues of mine, and those that were too changed by their exposure to orichalcum were humanely disposed of. I will now have to seek out a new means of experimentation.

Day thirty-eight: The improvements to my own body have become even more pronounced since beginning to focus on myself as a test subject. This has emboldened me to magnify my time around the orichalcum. This may eventually prove to be fatal, but, if my hypothesis is posthumously vindicated in the eyes of science, then my death shall not be in vain.

Day fifty-two: An unfortunate… Complication, to put it mildly, has arisen. I awoke this morning to find my bedclothes largely in tatters thanks to what I can only refer to as the emergence of four new limbs, namely, arms, from my torso. Hiding them under my labcoat has thus far proven effective in concealing this change from anyone else at the University, though the black eye I sustained while disrobing is much more conspicuous. My own mortified interest in my new appendages swiftly preceded the stunning realization that I was not yet fully in control of them, lacking the muscle memory to effectively wield them. To put it in plain terms, I managed to punch my own eye in attempting to see how connected to my nervous system they truly were. Luckily, having had a lengthy reputation as a gangly and unathletic sort to date, my bruising has not proven overly suspicious.

Day seventy-seven: I believe the changes to my body have reached their zenith. No new mutations seem to have occurred in some time, and my eyesight and physical strength seem to have achieved a pinnacle. I feel confident that this constitutes brobdingnagian confirmation of my thesis, as magic would presumably cause further and unchecked transformation.

Day one-hundred-nineteen: This University is a rumor mill the likes of which would impress any high society gathering in the whole of Europe! My new form has become common knowledge, and the board of deans has called me in for what most believe to be a disciplinary hearing, though I have my doubts. As my tenure here is assuredly over in either case, I have begun ferrying my notes, journals, and other relevant belongings off-campus. Assuming that my meeting ends in a manner that allows for it, I shall away to Havana, to continue my research in secret isolation, and hopefully one day dispel the superstitions that have been allowed to fester in what one might otherwise call the civilized world.

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Sound Description

I keep going back to this combination of song and sounds to sum up how Phillip would have felt at his happiest. I started trying to put together a combination for everyone, but I realized I don’t want to put words (sounds?) in anyone’s mouth. I have some thoughts, but I’d be curious to see how everyone would describe themselves.

Phillip:
https://goo.gl/2WPcDE

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The Ocean Calls
A Song by Avi and her Birds

The Ocean Calls,
Wind in Our Sails,
The Stars Beckon Us Home.

Gold Awaits,
Glittering and Old.
Treasure to Seek,
Life to Live.

Hand to Hold,
Side by Side we Sail.
The Edge of the World.
New Realms to Find.

Dreams that Haunt,
Only Alone can Hurt.
Will We Find,
The World Beyond?

The Ocean Calls,
Wind In Our Sails,
The Stars Beckon Us On.

Loved Ones by Our Side,
No Turning Back This Time.
Raise the Sails,
Lift Up into the Sky.

New Shores to See,
The Weird Awaits,
For Those Who Seek,

The Oceans Calls,
Wind in Our Sails,
Wherever We Go,
The Stars Beckon Us Home.

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What Happened

Part I: Wednesday Afternoon

The sound of waves gently lapping against sandy shores filled the warm tropical afternoon. An occasional bird call emerged from the jungle beyond the coastline, muffled by foliage and distance. The water was a calm and soft blue, almost as clear as the sky itself, and the white sand beneath the ocean’s surface danced gently in the currents.

Philip Borrow, Captain of the Songbird, stood calf-deep in the water, his trousers slowly soaking through as the waves lapped playfully against him. Scratches and dings—all less than a few hours old—decorated the right arm Farrah had just given him, its sleek novelty disguised beneath a layer of blood and dirt. His clothes, though nowhere near as new, were just as worn, decorated up and down with rips, stains, and the same fresh blood that coated his arm.

His face was blank, save for the few lone tears rolling down his cheeks, cutting through the dust and smoke caked to his skin. His beard, still as trim and sharp as normal, seemed desperate against his chin, as if it had to fight the grime and blood for purchase, and it stood out in contrast; a well-groomed memorial to a man that its surroundings seemed to have left behind.

In his shoulder, a muscle tightened in just the right way, which caused the bracket on his side to shift. This shift led to a spring in the arm being released, which in turn spun a nearby gear. This gear prompted a piston to retract, a wheel to rotate, a lever to click, a switch to toggle, and a coil to slowly unwind. At the end of the arm, Philip’s thumb moved an inch-and-a-half up, rested on the hammer of the pistol he was holding, and pulled it back. Had he given it the thought, he may have marveled at the precision this new arm was capable of, but his mind was elsewhere.

With another tightening and another chain reaction, the arm raised, and in a truly effortless series of twitches and pulls, Philip placed the barrel of his pistol against his temple. His finger, seemingly unaware of the fact that it wasn’t truly part of his body, found the trigger. For a moment, he hesitated.


Part II: Wednesday Morning

Lyrah wasn’t mad. She found anger to be unhelpful, and she’d never really done a good job embracing the emotion in the first place anyway. This was something a bit different, though what exactly it was, she couldn’t tell you.

Mel was a good person. He could be a bit dense at time, sure, but he had a good heart, and his commitment was ironclad. No, iron could rust. Something better than iron.

But despite his good intentions, he was frustrating. His love for the sea made him incredibly easy to distract and manipulate. Fooling the boy was practically a guarantee. It was this very quality that led to where she was now, and why she was mad-not-mad. Damn that beautiful man.

Was she feeling something for him? He was just a colleague, and very emotionally unavailable at that. Why did she keep falling for men like that? The mercy, in light of these questions, was that it wouldn’t much matter soon.

Where would she go from here? She’d heard Vandagen described like the Christian hell, and wondered if maybe that was her destination. Though she had always tried to be good, religions were so capricious in their morality, and there were so many contradictory rules that it seemed she’d have been bound for hell no matter how she’d conducted herself. If she was bound for Vandagen, she mused, at least she’d be able to see it for herself. She had so devoted to studying it in her life, it actually sounded nice to finally visit it in death.

So no, she wasn’t mad, even as her vision began to blur. It would have been nice to stay around a bit longer, even to just see the end of this newest mystery, but getting upset about that now seemed to be a waste.


Part III: Tuesday Evening

Though night hadn’t yet fallen, it might as well have been midnight this deep in the jungle. The canopy was so thick, and the foliage so dense that, even in the height of day, this was a dark place. Seeing without fire was almost impossible.

His hands and legs were covered in small cuts, and small bruises decorated his legs—both souvenirs of attempting to navigate this jungle without light. That he had to move quietly had made the journey all the more agonizing. He was sure to have contracted something from all the bugs that had bitten him by now, and the constant buzzing of flies around his unwashed hair had been the moldy cherry atop this shit cake.

Oh, and the murders. Those hadn’t been that great, either.

He tightened his purple cloth mask, and adjusted it so that between it and his turban, only his eyes were uncovered. He’d debated ditching it so he’d be harder to identify, but then realized that if any of his allies had survived, he’d be killed for not wearing it. It was a great sin, to feel shame for the role one played, and must be punished. He knew this.

A branch snapped behind him, and his heart sank as he spun. He was not ready to die.

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Birds of Paradise
A Confession

It was a lovely evening, spent in one of the local taverns, just the three of them, as it always was. Paradise was under the watch of the crew, all of whom they had come to trust. They had been enjoying a good laugh when Avi suddenly got to her feet. She pulled her hair over her shoulder, with it’s wild mix of sun and sky, and fidgeted with it for a moment.

“Smeb? Jamal.”

She adjusted her shoulders, her wings lowered and tucked close to her back. Her mismatched eyes drifting up to his face then down to the tankard in his hand, to make sure he had enough to drink, in case he did not like what she had to say.

“Captain?” he inquired.

Both sets of eyes were on her. “You are a great Quartermaster and Second Mate,” she blurted the words out, almost too quickly and had to catch a breath before beginning again. “Let me say this without interruption, please.”

She felt the heat rise to her cheeks, perhaps that was from her empty tankard, but she doubted it this time. She was trembling, her stomach dropping and rushing back and heartbeat was in her throat. She knew she needed to say it soon. Her eyes flicked up, again, to his face, a face she had grown fond of and it made her smile.

“You are,” she paused, she had not thought through what she was going to say. Perhaps she had had too much to drink. Her hesitation caused a worried glance between her two friends. “You have been at my side since I almost fled the Songbird.” She winced at the memory but pushed forward. “You have been a shoulder to cry on, and the hands that held me up.” She glanced at Charlie. “As have you, Charlie.”

Charlie gave her a grin but there was still worry set in the first mates eyes.

“N-now, I have been doing a lot of thinking, and I think I am right about this. I-I am still young and inexperienced, but-but-” she drifted off, lowering her gaze. She could see Smeb’s feet move as he stood up. He was going to comfort her, if he did that she would not be able to get the words out. She lifted her head, in the proud way they had come to expect. “I am falling in love with you, Jamal.”

He froze and the world felt like it was spinning around her, ready to crash and break, until a smile spread across his lips. He took her cheeks between his two hands.

“Fatat jamila,” were the only words he spoke before his lips caught hers.

“About time!” Charlie cheered, raising her tankard and taking another swig as she leaned back in her chair.

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Sharks and Charcuterie

Gerhart DeWitt breathed in the fresh country air and let out a contented, if not overindulgent, sigh. “It was very generous of you to invite me to your lovely estate. It isn’t every day I get to dine with a member of the Board.”

Adam Van Hett allowed himself a gentle smile as he admired his surrounded. “You are very kind, Mr. DeWitt. But the honor is mine.” He took a small sip of wine and savored the flavor for a moment before swallowing. “The VOC’s chief enforcer is such a busy man, it is a rarity to get a moment of his time, let alone his presence at dinner.”

“You are lucky I was free, I won’t deny that.” Gerhart confessed with a smirk.

The two men sat in silence for a moment, feasting their eyes on the rolling hills before them, painted in hues of yellow and gold in the Dutch twilight. The small table between them was decorated in light snacks of bread, cheese, and cured meats, each of which had been picked at by Adam and Gerhart while they awaited their dinner. An early summer breeze crawled gently across the grounds, rustling leaves and blowing waves across the hills.

From behind them, the sharp clicking of hard leather on cobbled stone signaled the arrival of Christof, Adam’s butler. “Terribly sorry to interrupt, Mr. Van Hett, but a wire has just arrived.”

Adam let his gaze break away from the landscape, but he did not meet Christof’s. “Inform them we have gone for a walk in the gardens, and shall return within the hour.”

“Of course, sir, but the wire is actually for Mr—”

“Yes, Christof, I am aware. Please, inform them we have gone for a walk in the gardens. We shall return within the hour.” Gerhart stiffened a bit in his chair.

Christof hesitated for only a moment, his powdered wig rustling slightly as he fought the urge to protest further. “Very good, sir.” Without another word, he turned on his heel and excused himself from the two men’s company. Gerhart raised a questioning eyebrow.

Adam adjusted to face Gerhart more directly before speaking. “I suppose that is as apt a segue as I could ask for.” He took another brief sip of his wine before setting the glass down. “Mr. DeWitt, I was hoping to speak business with you for a bit this evening.”

Gerhart let his curious face drop, and replaced it with a more pleasant one. “As both your guest and subordinate, it would be horribly rude of me to deny you that, sir.” His smirk had returned, and his posture began to relax. “What is it you wish to discuss?”

“The wire Christof came to inform us of would be Carolien.”

Gerhart hesitated. “Carolien, my boss?”

“The very same,” Adam replied. Gerhart made to ask further questions, but Adam gently signalled to listen. “That she is looking for you here means that she is already on your trail, and will likely be sending a man on foot. I’d guess we have only a few minutes to speak before he arrives.”

Adam took a brief moment to spread some cheese on bread before taking a small bite, savoring both its delicious flavor and the tension he could see etched in Gerhart’s face.

After letting the man suffer for a beat, he swallowed his bite and continued. “You are going to be asked to head home immediately and pack for several weeks away.” Noticing the confusion on Gerhart’s face, he added “on a mission.”

Understanding washed over Gerhart as he leaned back, realizing he’d been on the edge of his seat. “I see.”

“Not yet, you don’t,” Adam interjected. “Carolien is going to give you detailed information on an A.L.A.N. unit. It was spotted attempting to infiltrate a VOC facility in the caribbean a few hours ago.”

“An A.L.A.N. unit? Aren’t black ops a bit outside of their wheelhouse?”

“This is no ordinary A.L.A.N unit. This one has a bit of a reputation as a troublemaker, and keeping other troublemakers as company. It’s also fully self-aware, and insists on being recognized as a person, not a gad.”

Gerhart felt his confusion wash away for the second time this conversation. “I am familiar with him. I haven’t interacted with him directly before, but he’s part of a group I’ve been tracking for some time.”

“Yes, I’m aware of this,” Adam said. “And that familiarity is exactly why this mission is being handed to you. Alan’s actions this afternoon earned him a VOC-sized target on his back, and you’re being sent to deactivate him by—”

“Wait, deactivate him?” Gerhart interrupted.

“—by any means necessary,” Adam continued, his voice stern. “Congratulations, in a few minutes, you are going to be a contract killer.”

Gerhart swirled his wine idly, his gaze unfocused as he worked his way through everything. After a moment, he drew in a breath to speak. “So, why are you telling me all this, if I’m minutes away from hearing it directly from Carolien?”

“Because,” Adam said, his tone calmer, “You’re not going to find him.”

Gerhart’s eyebrow shot up in curiosity. “I think you underestimate me, sir.”

“I do not,” Adam said reassuringly. “In fact, I think I know you better than anyone else on the Board. But you still aren’t going to find him.”

“And why is that?” Gerhart asked

“Because you’re not going to look for him.”

“I’m not?”

“No. You’re going to fall extremely ill upon your arrival to the caribbean, and will remain bed bound until the VOC gets frustrated and pulls you home.”

“How do you know this?”

Adam reached into his pocket and retrieved a small vial. “Because you’re going to poison yourself with this. One sip at dinner will have you looking nice and miserable by morning, and will keep you that way until bed the next night. Simply keep sipping at it for as long as you need.” He judged the vial for a moment before offering it across the table. “I’m told the symptoms are far more comfortable than they look.”

Gerhart looked at the vial for a moment, then back at Adam, utterly baffled. “Why, on heaven or earth, would I do this?”

Adam, shrugged a bit, placing the vial on the table in front of Gerhart before scooping up his wine. “Because you really like money, Mr. DeWitt, and this is an easy way to make a lot. By the time you get back, I wouldn’t be surprised if your accounts had an extra two-hundred thousand guilders in them.”

Gerhart blinked a bit in approving contemplation; it was a lot of money. “Won’t that look suspicious?”

Adam regarded his wine as though he hadn’t heard the question. “I work in mergers and acquisitions. If my team didn’t know how to cook books, the company wouldn’t function.”

Gerhart nodded, conceding the point. “Okay, I’ll think about it.” He noticed something over Adam’s shoulder, and Adam turned to see what he was looking at. An approaching courier waved at their notice, and picked up his pace.

Adam turned back to Gerhart and lowered his voice. “You will do no such thing. I only have room on my team for men of action, not hesitance and contemplation. You will answer me now.”

Gerhart’s eyes widened slightly at this new intensity. “Why do you want this?”

“Because, the VOC is—” Adam straightened up slightly as he heard the courier come within earshot. He frowned briefly at the new member of their conversation, but quickly adopted a more genial facade. “Simply put, the bitch was too old and sick to keep living a life of comfort, and keeping her around was making everyone else miserable.” He paused for a moment, and waited until Gerhart’s gaze had locked with his.

“So I decided to put her down.”

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