“You don’t treat family like that!”
Horace slammed his fist on the table, almost knocking his glass over. He glowered at Darcea, his chin jutted forward, his chest rising and falling.
“But he’s making a fool of us,” Darcea said, slowly and calmly. She leaned back in her chair.
Shorack watched, from behind his desk, and sighed. Being the head of the family was supposed to be an honour, but nobody realised the work he did. “She has a point,” he said as he reached out, stroking the leaves of the plant Rannall had given him. He couldn’t remember the name or species or whatever, but he knew how to care for it. Water, nutrients, and cutting off anything that turned brown.
The leaf under his fingers felt rough, and when he lifted it, brown patches were visible. He’d prune it once this meeting was over.
“But we have to do something.” Horace spun to Shorack, his voice now with that annoying whiny edge. “If we let this go, it sets a precedent.”
“And you’ve never used your initiative?” Shorack tilted his head at Horace, and watched as the man’s lip wobbled, shaking that stupid bush on his top lip. Would a trim be too much to ask?
He didn’t need to glance at Darcea, though. She’d be smirking, pleased that Shorack had scored a point in her favour. Like this was just a game.
He raised his hands. “Let’s recap, to clarify. So Varon made a deal with Dephlorin, and he’s doubled his income within a couple of weeks. All well and good.” He saw Horace nod, and Darcea open her mouth. He continued before she could raise an objection. “But the deal upsets others, and the Trockia Crew are threatening to pull out. And if they go, we have no sway with Allerton over in the north. If we don’t do something, this could mean twenty percent of our current income gone—and that’s without considering our loss of face.”
“And this isn’t the first time Varon’s done something like this. You remember the Grodski incident? And then there’s that hussy.” Darcea gave that word her own special twist, like the woman was worse than the seven devils combined. As if Varon hadn’t instigated that whole thing.
“But he’s still family. We can’t simply remove him.”
“Because he’s one of us!” Horace hammered the table again, then pointed at himself and Shorack. “No. One of us. If he was some interloper who’d partnered into the family, then maybe we could cut him out. But he’s a cousin. He’s blood.”
Darcea bristled at the implication that she was less worthy than Varon, or than Horace. And Shorack wondered, not for the first time, if he’d made a mistake in promoting her, especially now that she had no blood ties to the family.
“He is family,” Shorack said, “but we need to sort this mess out, before things get worse.” He nodded to both Horace and Darcea. “Give me a day. And mention this meeting to no-one.”
They left Shorack alone with his thoughts, and his plant. That rough leaf wouldn’t leave his mind, and he reached for his blade.
* * *
Shorack made a point of being first in the room for the full family’s monthly meeting, and he positioned himself just inside the double doors, greeting his kin as they entered. Most of them were early, and they stood in pairs or small groups, talking. And Shorack listened in, as surreptitiously as he could.
“Of course, it was bound to happen sooner or later,” Rannall said, to Shorack’s left. “I loved the lad like a son, but he was far too impetuous. Always leaping before looking.”
“So you don’t believe it was a hit?” Horace said. His cold eyes darted stabbed at Shorack.
Rannall waved a hand dismissively. “Who doesn’t have enemies? But that part of the district, it could just as easily have been a random attack. You know what the place is like—say the wrong word, and you find a blade in your stomach.”
And that was how they’d found Varon—the ten-inch blade still protruding from his guts. A professional wouldn’t have left a weapon—but the slit across the man’s throat spoke of a controlled kill.
“But it makes things easier for you, right?” Rannall raised a glass and tilted it in Shorack’s direction. “Bit of a thorn in your side, I believe.”
Shorack put on what he hoped was an understanding expression. “The impetuousness of youth Shame we’ll never see his full potential.” Although ‘shame’ was not the word he would have liked to use. “But I believe,” he said, raising his voice, “that it is high time we started. Take your places, please. We’ll start with you, Horace. How are things with Allerton?”
* * *
The rest of the meeting passed, as it always did, in arguments and counter-arguments, and more talking than Shorack ever wanted to hear. Members of the family jockeying for position, talking up their own importance while belittling others, and all with smiles of friendship. Who knew how many wanted to stick a blade in those sitting right next to them?
At some point, everyone glanced at the empty chair. But no-one mentioned Varon. It was like he was already a memory, and Shorack mentally ran through names of cousins who might be promoted.
And now it was over, and the family filed out. Darcea’s smile chilled him, and the way Horace avoided eye contact warned Shorack of trouble to come. But Rannall leaned in and whispered, “Well played.” Shorack gave a slight nod in acknowledgement, even though it had been the only way to solve the problem.
He returned to his office and watered his plant. It looked lopsided at the moment, but a new leaf would grow back soon. Already, there was the start of a bud.
Shorack smiled as he checked the remaining leaves.
…if you only walk long enough
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It’s Not Murder If They’re No Longer Human