Well, my sister is alright. Turns out she is pregnant and that is why she was crying and evasive. Imho a little ridiculous and I'm annoyed she made us panic. I can totally understand having a baby is frightening and all, especially if it wasn't intended, but this is covid time. You don't go into hospital crying and sobbing and not tell anyone why and assume they won't be fearing for your fucking life. It's not like my sister is 15 either. She is 40. It's an older age to get pregnant, sure, but not in any way the end of the world.

Maybe I'm being unfair – it's a huge responsibility, shock, etc, but so was getting tearful and vague phone calls about being rushed into hospital and staying there and not being able to tell me or the family what was wrong.


Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 54


Trust.

Such a simple word. Such a dangerous word. It was on trust that every crime lord, gang boss and organisation member met in one rented-out restaurant near the centre of Vale, and it was with trust that Jaune stepped out of his tinted-window car with Cinder Fall at his side, dressed in his best suit, his shoes shined to a mirror reflection and his hair neatly trimmed. It was with trust that numerous other fancy and expensive cars dotted the carpark, that two burly men by the doors took names but made no effort to search them for concealed weapons. They were trusted to no better, as was everyone else, as was Cinder, as were the worst of the worst in Vale's underground.

One gun, one Semblance, could cut the heads of every gang in Vale. It had to be tempting to someone – to Cinder if no one else. Blow this place up with everyone inside and suddenly the whole city was yours for the taking. The only consequence? That no survivor, nor any other future gang, would trust you or your word. Your reputation would be utterly and eternally void. That might be worth it for some, he felt.

Inside, the restaurant was ornate and expensive. They were directed up the stairs to the second floor, which was much darker. The windows had been shut, curtains drawn, and the dining area had been replaced with something more akin to a lounge. Booths flanked the walls left and right, small tables with padded benches on either side and glass panels between each booth for privacy. In the middle of the room, three large, circular tables had been erected with ten chairs around each. At the far end, a bar with four members of staff, their eyes dipped downwards as they served suited gangsters. They obviously knew who they were serving, and they knew to keep quiet. Trust, again. What was to say these young men and women wouldn't do the right thing and report them to the police? Nothing. Nothing other than trust.

Jaune paused to look around at the fifty or so men and women already in attendance. More men than women, he noted, though the ten or so women that came stood out for their flamboyant dresses and powerful confidence. They reminded him of Cinder, and yet older, more mature. They were less overt threats and fire and more smouldering looks and touches. Quiet, assured power.

The Lumens had not yet arrived, nor had Bon-Hwa and the Shoryu-Nayuta. That spared them being waved over, which would have set the tone of their allegiance for the evening and made things difficult. Laurie and Dominic weren't yet there either, though he did see Ringmaster of all people, the idiot in charge of those clowns that bothered them at the docks. The masked man saw him staring, raised a hand and waved cheekily.

"Friend of yours?" Cinder asked. She had come in a black dress today in a rare acquiescence to his request. It hung down low on the back but was cut high up front, with a small choker around her neck. Her arm was slid through his, her elbow-length black gloved hand resting on his wrist.

"Someone who got in our way and was put down for it," he replied. "If he'd had his way, he would have made off with half your dust."

"And you defended it. My hero. Should we take a seat?"

Cinder was looking toward the larger tables as she said that, no doubt believing her power granted her the right. It didn't. The twins had driven so much into his head it was fit to burst, but the most important thing was to remember that the Xiong Clan, while tough, were not big players. They were not a major family or clan. Jaune tugged Cinder gently along and to one of the booths on the wall, an unassuming and less prestigious table to reflect their position in the city.

"Would you like a drink?" he offered to mollify her. "I'll pay."

"Is this a better bar than the last?"

"I've not been but I can be discerning."

"I'll trust your judgment then. Red wine if it's of any real quality. Soda if not."

The bar was busy with chatter, but it was muted and not at all open conversation. Suited men coupled in groups of two or three, close allies or their own gang members, while keeping wary eyes on any other that approached. Jaune didn't have to push through to the front because the people in his way moved, less out of politeness and more that they saw him coming and didn't trust him to be close to their backs. He noticed that the walls were the more common place for people to stand, so that their little groups could keep their backs to them. The windows, on the other hand, were completely avoided. I guess trust can only go so far.

The bargirl that served him looked frightened. She kept her eyes down, refusing even to see his face for fear of what it might mean. It was odd since she was older than him, but she never once looked up to check. Sensing her distress, he ordered quickly. The wine would do, and he took a smaller drink than his usual. Non-alcoholic would be either an insult of seen as a weakness according to Tony, but a single shot of whiskey over copious amounts of ice would make him look more at ease than he was. He could hopefully nurse it the whole night.

Cinder accepted, sipped and approved of the wine when he returned. Jaune settled in opposite her, sipped his own alcoholic ice-water and scanned the door just as Laurie and Dominic entered hand in hand. "I guess Bon-Hwa was right about them. Once can be dismissed but twice is a pattern."

"That woman isn't as assured as she pretends," Cinder said – which was ironic because he often thought the same about her. "She's too desperate to align herself with Atlas, and that indicates weakness."

"The Laurette family like to style themselves as a major family." Jaune watched as Laurie ran a hand down Dominic's chest and laughed. They were loud and attention-grabbing, but he noted with no small amusement how they accepted their place at a booth and not the head tables. "But ultimately, they're not."

"You sound awfully confident yourself when you talk like that."

Jaune frowned. He had to sound confident. He'd been thrust into this by Cinder killing Hei and it had been swim or sink. Taking another short drink, he went back to scanning the arrivals as they came. Sebastian Lumens showed up after a few more. The faunus noted him, nodded once in greeting but didn't approach. They took a booth further down after getting some drinks. It looked like Sebastian would be representing his father tonight.

The first person to take a seat at the head table was, in fact, a woman. An ancient-looking crone who he would have honestly guessed to be nearing a hundred years of age. She came supported on a cane and also with a young man holding her other arm to steer her along. Dressed in a pale blue dress that hung perilously from bony shoulders and a stick-thin figure, she was assisted down into her seat. The moment she was, she took out a cigar that looked thicker than her wrist and gripped it between very few teeth. The man leaned down to light it and she took a puff, waving him off toward the bar to fetch drinks.

"Who is the crone?" Cinder asked.

"I don't know," he admitted. "Someone important, but I've never dealt with them before."

"Perhaps we should introduce ourselves," she suggested. He looked at her with naked horror, only to catch Cinder's smirk. "Just a joke," she deflected with a quiet laugh. "I promised to be on my best behaviour tonight, didn't I?"

She had, and he was still amazed she'd listened to half of the things he'd begged of her. Maybe it was because he had begged, or maybe she was just excited to finally be able to see all the movers and shakers in the city, people she could try to manipulate, supplant or kill in her spare time. She'd said before she could deal with Roman's nonsense as long as he got results, so maybe she was fine to play by his rules so long as he was giving her what she wanted.

They went through another round of drinks before the other two major players arrived. One was a remarkably non-descript man of no discernible age. Brown hair, brown eyes, black suit, light stubble. He approached the crone to say a few words, which she returned with a hideously flirtatious smile. He bent over to kiss her on both cheeks before moving onto his own table, drawing out a seat and taking it. His bodyguard, a man with white hair tied back into a ponytail and the very obvious look of a huntsman, took the seat beside his boss.

The last was another man – and he had to squeeze his way into the room. Portly did not describe him. The man had no neck, only chins that continued an inch or two down his chest with room enough to hide a handgun beneath them if you wanted. He was massively obese and shone with a faint sheen of sweat. His belly was so heavy it didn't jiggle or wobble, having grown too large and heavy for such movement. Too large, even, for normal clothes. He wore what could generously be called a toga, and more realistically a bedsheet turned into a crude dress. Two men came with him, carrying between them what Jaune could only assume was a heavily reinforced bench. It was wide enough to be three seats, with rich velvet cushions and marble legs. The men pushed the seats at the third table aside and set it down, and the beast in human form sat onto it. Jaune was sure he wasn't the only one wincing when the floorboards creaked.

"What the hell is that?" Cinder asked.

"I would assume the crime boss of one of the major organisations…"

"No, Jaune, that is a whale that has somehow become beached, procured a dress and learned to breathe air. Or cake," she added morbidly. "How can he lead anyone? He looks like he'd have a heart attack if he tried to raise his voice."

There was no disagreeing with her. The man looked winded from the staircase, and one of his guards brought out a pack of four cupcakes in a plastic container to grant his master some much-needed strength. A pudgy hand reached down, gripped all four at once and then stuffed them into his mouth. Not one at a time. All four. One mouth. Jaune couldn't take his eyes from the display, and nor, thankfully, could many others.

"I… I guess the fact he can be like that and still be in charge is a sign of strength," Jaune said. "Like a good huntsman going unarmed against Grimm."

"His organisation must be good." Cinder mused. "Or stupendously rich. I'll have to look into it."

"Don't do anything that'll get us killed!" Jaune hissed.

The last people to arrive, as he ought to have expected, was Bon-Hwa and the delegates from Mistral. It was a conscious decision on their part for sure, to saunter in when everyone else was seated and draw every eye. Sanlan smirked challengingly at everyone, her huge, dark muscles popping as she stretched her tree-trunk arms above her. Kuja smiled more politely, while Bon-Hwa kept a calm face and let them lead.

What they led to was the same table as the corpulent man. Sanlan grabbed a seat.

"The head tables are reserved for the ruling families." The non-descript brunette man said in the ensuing silence. "The East Dragon Company does not qualify. You may take yourselves to one of the booths."

Sanlan raised an eyebrow and glanced back to Kuja. A moment of silence passed before she yanked the chair out and twisted it around, sitting with the backrest before her legs. Kuja took one of the seats as well, dismissing the complaint.

"I no speak good Valean." Sanlan said in a thick, fake accent. "Is good, yes?"

The vastly obese man made a high-pitched and angry noise and pointed to them. His three guards reached for their weapons.

"I would think twice." Kuja said calmly. "We are the Shoryu-Nayuta, one of the three pillars of Mistral." It must have been the three greatest clans, a parallel to their own here. "It is insult enough a table was not provided for us. Such poor hospitality, you Valeans show."

"This is not Mistral," the crone pointed out.

Sanlan's smirk all but said `not yet`. Kuja chuckled and drew a seat out for Bon-Hwa, who sat obediently without a word. It seemed the EDC's days of playing as a real gang and not a front were effectively over.

"Who can expect manners from Mistral savages?" the man in the suit asked with a sigh. "Is Duke Gormond amicable to sharing his august table with these savages?"

The corpulent man, who Jaune suspected was no duke, made another whining sound, almost like a baby trying to communicate. Cinder looked disgusted by it, and no less so when one of the man's three guards spoke for him. "Duke Gormond accepts the ignoble foreigners if it speeds the night's closure," he orated pompously. "Duke Gormond has much to do, and his wives await him back home."

Wives. Ugh. Jaune could only hope they were gold-diggers looking for the very real and probably soon death of their so-called husband. The other possibility was something he didn't want to entertain. If he did, he might ask Cinder to kill the man and that would lead to all sorts of problems.

"Then it is settled. I, Rust Dubont of the Dubont Syndicate, do support this summit's neutrality."

"I, Catelyn de la Rouge, support this summit in the name of the Rouge family."

"Uwahh…" the fat man opined.

"Duke Gormond, High Lord of the Principality of Vale and the Reclamationists, future King of Vale and sovereign liege, does hereby grant his reluctant approval to this banquet. May all be grateful."

Jaune felt Cinder kicking him under the table and shrugged. She was almost certainly asking what the hell that was all about, and he'd be damned if he knew. Some kind of narcissism probably. It took all kinds. They obviously weren't as powerful or as unified as they liked to pretend, otherwise Atlas and Mistral wouldn't be lingering in the wings ready to take over the city. Had they once been great? Had Catelyn de la Rouge once been a powerful and cunning boss in her time, ravaged now by old age? Had the prior head of the Dubont Syndicate been a mastermind who died and left it to Rust? Had Duke Gormond once been a keen and fit man before losing himself to excess?

It was impossible to say, but something had happened. Something had gone wrong somewhere along the way, and now this summit was as much theatre as action. If it were anything else, if there were any real power here, they would have shown it and forced the Shoryu-Nayuta into a booth. Instead, the best they could do was frame them as rude foreigners and let them stay. That doesn't inspire confidence. I wonder if Dominic could have forced himself onto a table as well.

"Then this summit is opened." Rust said for his fellows. "And we have quite the array of topics to talk of today. First and foremost, the Vytal Festival and the very pressing problem of the city's sudden spike in security as a result of it. We have all felt the impact of the huntsmen on our profits, I am sure. Even those of us who can boast of having our own," he indicated his bodyguard with no small amount of smuggery, "-have faced problems here or there. You may notice that several faces are absent entirely, their organisations destroyed. Whether this be poor luck or an absence of preparation is immaterial. The matter stands that the huntsmen are a problem."

"Then kill them." Sanlan interrupted crudely. "Problem solved."

A grumble erupted around the restaurant, with several laughs and much derision aimed at the Mistral group. Rust smiled sarcastically and explained, as if to a baby. "We cannot simply killer them, my dear, because they will respond by sending more, stronger huntsmen and huntresses to deal with us."

"And then you kill them." Sanlan said. "And you kill those that come after, and then those tha come after that." Her lips peeled back into a feral smile. "Until the powers that be realise that huntsmen are best saved for Grimm and not fed into the meatgrinder."

"That's-"

"It's what we did," she said. Silence reigned. Rust Dubont looked, for a brief moment, stunned. "You can look it up. They called it Bloody March – when we purged every huntsman and huntress that Mistral dared send at us, when all the clans joined together to send a message the city could not ignore. Eight dead. Strung up on street corners with their throats slit, their blood running down the walls. Do you know how many huntsmen they send after us now? Do you know what the bounties for our capture are?"

"None. There is no reward for the capture of the Shoryu-Nayuta or the other pillars, because Mistral knows that encouraging anyone to come after us will see us bring the city to its knees."

"Sanlan, please." Kuja said calmly, diplomatically. Mockingly. "The families and organisations of Vale do not have the same resources we do. They obviously cannot deal with the huntsmen of Beacon, otherwise they would have done so already. "It's a… cultural difference."

"Ahhh. My bad." Sanlan laughed loudly. "I'm not good at that cultural sensitivity shit. Fine. You do you," she waved her hand at Rust. "I'm keen to see how Vale handles this. Always fun to see how people on the other side of the pond do things."

Fucking Mistral. He'd have to ask the twins later if Bloody March was true, but the fact they dared say it in a place like this, where anyone could have called them out on it, suggested it was. A lie wouldn't have stuck or cowed the various families quite so hard. No wonder they have free reign in Mistral. It takes over a decade to train a huntsman or huntress, and they need them against the Grimm. They can't afford to lose that many on a gang.

Better to let sad gang continue their illegal activities, pretend they weren't happening and hope for the best, than risk the Grimm overwhelming towns and villages. As it was, a few might have been destroyed because of that.

"Obviously, we need to deal with the huntsmen in an appropriate manner," Rust said, struggling to regain the momentum and, perhaps, his wounded pride. It was harder now for him because in the fact of denying Mistral's solution he had essentially placed himself on the side of capitulating with the huntsmen and not fighting back. It made him look weak. "In this, I do believe we have some information from a local family. Laura, is it?"

"Laurie. Of Laurette family." Laurie looked annoyed by the mistake – likely intentional – but carried on regardless. "Through our own operations, we have found suggestion that the huntsmen are mostly interested in combating the White Fang. We are little more than caught in the crossfire of their crusade." She paused to allow for people to take that in and discuss briefly. "What's more," she added, "we have discovered that Roman Torchwick is in allegiance with the White Fang and has been directly responsible for at least two cases of action on their part."

Louder discussion, some angry. Roman was a known figure, a local, and it seemed his reputation would be tanking even further for this. Jaune spared a glance for Cinder, who was behind it all, but she looked unaffected.

"Thank you, Laurie." Rust nodded and she sat down. "I, too, have heard news of Torchwick's disregard for the peace of the city. He has been a problem of late and not at all cooperative. I dare say that if the huntsmen are looking for him specifically, perhaps it is best they find him. Does anyone disagree?"

No one did. One thief was a small price to pay for the possibility of getting the huntsmen off their backs. Of course, that didn't stop Laurie standing again and saying, "My apologies for the interruption, but simply removing Roman and hoping this will bring about an end to huntsmen involvement is no longer possible. Or rather, it won't be enough. A week ago it may have been, but for one of our own here-" Laurie pointed, and Jaune felt every set of eyes on him, "-executing a huntress and leaving her body for the others to find. The Xiong Clan has escalated tensions irrevocably. Now, the huntsmen have a personal vendetta against us all."

People began to clamour and shout. It seemed that the news wasn't as widespread as he'd imagined, because quite a few groups expressed surprise at the news. They must have seen it mentioned on the TV, but maybe they'd thought someone else did it. The White Fang or the clan from Mistral. It must have been too much to hear that a complete unknown, a newcomer with no background, had come in and done this.

"Enough!" Rust shouted over the noise. "We are not savages here. Let our words be heard." He paused as the noise died down. "Is the good lady's word true?" he asked Jaune directly. "Did you order your men to kill this huntress?"

The twins and Tony had been clear on what he should do here today. Keep his head down. Say nothing. There was, in their words, no reason for a medium-sized gang like theirs to be singled out in any way. No reason but for Laurette's meddling. She must have wanted that larger slice of the cartel pie after all. He hadn't had any guidance on how to speak or act, but he took the cue from Laurie and stood, smoothing his suit jacket down and taking a slow sip from his whiskey to centre himself.

"Jaune Xiong," he introduced as calmly as he could. "And no, I didn't order anyone to kill her."

Rust breathed out. "Good. Then-"

"I did it myself."

"What? You-" Rust palmed his face. "Why? What could have possessed you?"

"The huntress had a personal vendetta and would not have left us be," he explained. "She had previously reneged on a deal with my predecessor Hei Xiong, neglecting her duty to protect him at a key moment and leading directly to his death." There was a quiet murmur at that. It rankled that Hei's murderer was sat at his table. "As such, we took actions to punish Miss Scarlatina as any would, and she objected that. She was not a part of the investigative teams fighting the White Fang, just a vengeful huntress who wanted nothing more than to murder me." Jaune took another sip to hide his panic. "I took exception to that."

"And so you killed her. Executed her. Do you have any idea what you've done?"

"Shown some balls." Sanlan interrupted. "The first person I've seen here who has any." She eyed the `Duke` scathingly. "At least any that haven't been absorbed back into their own body."

"Xiong's actions upset a delicate balance," the old crone, Catelyn, croaked. "Vale has ever existed on a fine line. His actions threaten to tip the city into anarchy. That is not good for business."

"Ahhhhh…." The hideous man-baby said.

"Duke Gormond believes that someone here reaches above their station. Huntsmen are protectors of the city, no matter their actions, and killing one will only incite further violence. As all of Vale belongs to the Duke and his claim is absolute, this could be constituted as a direct act against him."

Jaune stiffened. This wasn't what he'd been told would happen. He glanced to Dominic and Laurie – they were smirking. Their plan from the start was to throw him under the wheels. Another to Sebastian Lumens had the faunus clenching his glass with gritted teeth. Not a good sign if his ally was tense. These people, no matter how old, fat or uninspiring, were the most powerful people in Vale. They were stronger than the Xiong Clan by an order of leagues. Behind him, Cinder tapped her fingernails on the table. Watching him. Judging. There might be help there, but there might not be. If she thought she could get stronger help elsewhere, she might jump ship and leave him to die.

On my own. Nothing different there. Think. What would Hei do?

Nothing. Hei was dead.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

"Does the Xiong have anything to add?" Rust asked. A formality. "Or shall we start to talk of how he might renumerate our losses?"

"His head might satisfy the huntsmen." Catelyn said.

"I do have something to say actually." Jaune spoke loudly. It surprised the heads from the looks on their faces. "What I have to say is this – I am disappointed by the craven weakness shown by the so-called heads of our city. I am disappointed by their cowardice, by their inaction, and by their decisions that have and will lead to the complete and utter destruction of us all."

Absolute silence.

Even Cinder's tapping had ceased.


What you doing, Jaune? Oh hell, this is bound to end well.


Next Chapter: 27th January

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