Flopknot found Sooty Grainger in a bar on Champions Way, charming her way into a knot of excitable tourists. “Can I borrow her for just a moment please?” she asked, giving them her fluffiest cheek-puff as she steered the Siamese into a back room.
The cat licked a paw and smoothed her whiskers flat. “Flops, it’s wonderful to see you again, but I am working you know.”
“So am I, darling.” Flopknot opened the door to let in her crew, then shut it firmly. Cloudpuff hopped up onto a bench seat to inspect the graffiti. Mellowgrass opened up a tablet and started scrolling.
Sooty stretched across a table with an air of strained patience. “Really, is this necessary? Can’t you make an appointment for Monday?”
Cloudpuff grumbled, “You mean take weekends? What an idea!”
Flopknot’s look shushed him. “This bar is close to the arena, Sooty. Isn’t your repulsion curse supposed to keep you a half-kay away from gambling venues?”
Sooty’s tail flicked back and forth as she glanced at Mellowgrass. “As I’m sure your evil vizier here can tell you -”
“Hey!” At this deadly insult, Mellowgrass nearly broke eye contact with his screen. It was close thing.
“-the nearest entrance to Covenant of Combat is 600 metres away.”
Mellowgrass shrugged. “Credit where it’s due. She’s not wrong.”
Flopknot twitched her nose, accepting the correction. “I’m glad to hear you’re staying clear of temptation, darling. But I recall you’re also forbidden to contact anyone connected to the fight circuit. Princess Naomi’s ruling was quite strict.”
Sooty Grainger’s trial was conducted behind closed doors and hushed up. Even Flopknot didn’t officially know all the details. Unofficially, her team specialised in sniffing out juicy information.
“I don’t care for insinuations,” purred Sooty, examining the tip of one claw with a dangerous glint in her eye. “Should I speak to a lawyer? Or my cousin the Duke?”
Duke Balepaw, while not technically one of the princes included in the name Gleaming Principalities, wielded the sort of influence that led to sudden changes in political will, fashion trends and the occupancy rates of shallow graves. Sooty Grainger was not a mere cousin, but a favourite cousin.
Flopknot decided to play her best card early, before the game got out of hand. “Sooty, dear, we’ve got Quincy Trott in a safe location. You know how talkative unicorns are. He told us some fascinating stories.”
They all saw Sooty flinch at the name. Mellowgrass couldn’t resist piping up. “You’d probably know him as Cantering Quincy. That is, if you were involved in illegal betting on arena fights.”
Cloudpuff, whose weekends normally involved sparring and some amateur matches, added, “I trained with him once. Has a front-hoof stomp you wouldn’t believe, and he’s a wizard with that horn. A real wizard.”
Sooty’s hackles rose along her back. “I don’t know what you little bunnies are chattering about. Open that door right now-”
“If you like,” said Flopknot, unlatching the door and stepping aside. The sounds of tavern bustle tumbled through the crack. A few curious heads turned. “But I don’t think you’re going to want to whisper in Balepaw’s ear until you’ve heard what we’ve got to say.”
Sooty’s eyes flicked toward the gap. Her ears twitched. Flopknot guessed at the cat’s mental calculus – how fast can I get to my carriage, stopping only to murder three state-appointed bunnies? She was one heartbeat away from signalling Cloudpuff to take her down when Sooty sighed and dropped flat.
“What do you have to say?”
Mellowgrass held up a spreadsheet showing bank transactions to offworld accounts. “Your financial situation is very healthy lately, Lady Grainger.”
“I pride myself on sound investments.”
Flopknot nodded for Cloudpuff to put away his tranquiliser wand and discretely closed the door again. “So you should. By our estimates those investments include ten registered fighters in the Unicorn Combat League, three of the Jurassic Hydra’s seven heads, and a werebear by the name of Ella-Sue. Did we miss anyone?”
Sooty’s sour lip-purse confirmed the numbers.
“We think you’ve been using your position as Senior Liaison to host receptions for offworld tourists. Somehow the fights always come up in your discussions, despite the best magical injunctions money can buy, and somehow the visitors always manage to wrestle a hot tip out of you. Offworlders are just mad for unicorn fights, and they love to spend money, don’t they?”
“None of this is very illegal,” observed Sooty coldly.
“Not at all, if you don’t also have a pattern of laying heavy bets against those hot tips through a small army of plausibly deniable proxies.”
“Oops,” said Cloudpuff. “Turns out every bookie in town has lost a bundle to bets laid by golems with a two-day lifespan and no records of ownership. Which is very illegal.”
“And of course that’s where our Quincy comes in.” In Flopknot’s judgement, their cornered dandelion was ripe for the nibbling. “Every single one of those golem bets correctly guessed the fight would last ten or more rounds longer than anyone expected – not the punters, the trainers or the bookmakers. What are the odds?”
“Six hundred and eleven thousand to one, against.” Mellowgrass’ tablet showed his calculations.
“Well that sounds very unlikely. Especially in no-holds-barred fights against opponents known for administering skull-crushing kicks and organ-rupturing horn impalement.”
“The sensible money goes down for the fights ending in a blood loss surrender in the fourth round,” said Cloudpuff. “But your boy Quincey is a rare one. It turns out he has a Healing Horn. Stab a little, wounds look life-threatening, then he cures the surface injuries, and the opponent lives to fight on. For fourteen rounds or so.”
Sooty hissed, not bothering to deny it. “What do you want?”
“Peace and harmony in the Principalities,” said Flopknot, twitching her whiskers ironically. “By which I mean, you cut the Princes in or else they’ll get proof that Duke Balepaw is a racketeer.”
“You bunnies will pay for this.”
“You first,” said Mellowgrass. “Sixty percent.”