The beginnings of Zoniha/Regulus.Words:
Zoniha receives an offer that she can
refuse but doesn’t really want to.Rating:
PG-13ish, as per the usual.Notes:
I’ve been in the process of tweaking and filling in the details of the Zoniha/Regulus backstory (said as though I’m not always fiddling with things like that), so I guess this was the inevitable result of that. It also just so happens that I recently finished reading a book about the fall of the Chicago Outfit, so some of that got incorporated into here. (Lesson learned: I should probably do research into real-world crime when it comes to figuring out exactly what Reg and Zo were up as the Crown and Consort of the Obsidian Phoenix.)
When word comes in at Serekastel that someone is requesting the company of Zoniha for the night, Zoniha merely shrugs and sets to work prettying herself up for another client. It seems to be a standard enough affair, as there are no particularly special demands attached to the request, and she even recognizes the restaurant she’ll be dining at with the client. When she actually meets with said client, she finds nothing unusual about his appearance, demeanor, or words.
So she is entirely unprepared when she is ushered into the client’s rented penthouse for the night and finds none other than Regulus waiting for her in the living room, leaning against a wall with his arms crossed. Clad all in black in a T-shirt, jeans, and combat boots, he looks more like the foot soldier he started out as rather than the new Crown of the Obsidian Phoenix.
“...my, my,” she croons, covering her surprise with coy professionalism. She touches a hand to her cheek in mock umbrage. “This Zoniha wasn’t informed that there would be an additional member to the party! With all due respect, Krohnei
, I hope you don’t plan to start off your reign by attempting to cheat a goddess house of their due.”
“I have no interest in any such thing,” Regulus says, pushing off against the wall and walking over to her. “Your plans for the rest of the night are between you and him.” He nods at her client, who silently pads over to a window after shedding his tuxedo jacket, setting his gaze beyond the glass. Stripped thusly, it’s clear that he’s armed. Zoniha had noticed the gun earlier in the night, but had written it off as standard operating procedure in a city like Cerbera. His apparent collaboration with Regulus, however, lends a slightly different spin to things. “I’m here for a different reason.”
“And that would be?”
“I want you to be my Consort.”
The answer is so completely unexpected that Zoniha almost doesn’t understand it. More accurately: she doesn’t understand why it’s directed towards her
“However, I’m not interested in having you fulfill the usual ‘duties’ of the position, such as they are,” he continues. When Zoniha pouts at him in disappointment, it’s only partially an act. “Instead, I want you to act as my liaison.”
“You’ll be the one meeting personally with those who wish to hold an audience with me, determining what they want and their reasons for it. Anything you learn from them will be relayed back to me, for me to decide on later. Conversely, you would also represent my interests elsewhere should I be unable to do so myself for whatever reason. Some record-keeping and desk work will be involved, but I do also expect you to accompany me to events as necessary.”
Zoniha can’t help but snort a laugh. “So, in short, you want this Zoniha to be your glorified secretary.”
“I suppose that’s what it is. But I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s more than recent Consorts have ever been assigned to do.”
She does. And in truth, the position is a lot more precarious than being a mere secretary. Regulus is essentially appointing her to be the gatekeeper to the leader of one of the most influential underground organizations in Cerbera. Rather than putting himself out there to be approached, as his predecessor Albereo Creone was known to do at a local restaurant, Regulus is fading into the shadows, forcing people to instead flock towards Zoniha’s light. To those used to Creone’s faux-casualness, however, even someone as beautiful as Zoniha is an ugly roadblock on their path to power — one that they might try to destroy by any means necessary.
“You know, most men at least take potential mistresses out on a few dates before they start putting them up somewhere,” she points out dryly. “I haven’t even had you as a client, and yet you want me to be your Consort?”
“I’ve already said that I’m not interested in you in that way,” he insists, sounding as casual as one might when turning down a repeated offering of refreshments.
Zoniha pouts at him again. “Goodness, you’re a cruel man to say things like that, Krohnei.
“Doing away with formalities, are we? Well, if you insist.” She turns her back to pace across the hardwood floor. “As for what I
insist on, well — if you’re not interested in me in the usual manner of men, then I must know: in what way are
you interested in me? If managing the business affairs of the Phoenix is a prerequisite to this position, surely you’d be better served finding a nice girl who’s already part of the flock?”
“I’d prefer not to, if I can avoid it. It’s not ideal for what I have in mind.”
“What else? Establishing my authority as the Phoenix’s new Crown.”
“But it seems to this Zoniha that assigning an outsider to one of the most visible positions in the Phoenix and
granting them unprecedented power would undermine
your authority with the Bestiary in general. In particular, those in the Phoenix who would be otherwise inclined to accept you will wonder why you didn’t choose from among their ranks.”
“People can think what they like. When the time comes, I’ll deal with them personally.” He folds his arms again. “Besides, you’re familiar enough where it counts.”
Regulus has a point. A good chunk of her shadier clients claim affiliation with one of the members of the Bestiary, the four crime syndicates that together control Cerbera’s underground economy. Hell, she’d met Regulus himself through mutual connections at several Bestiary functions. As a result, Zoniha’s become decently fluent in the language and customs of that tumultuous world, and she’d be known to many of Regulus’ associates (current or potential). Such is her life as the most highly-regarded goddess girl at the Serekastel Goddess House, an ostensibly religious institution with deep roots in Cerberan history that somehow manages to enjoy power and prestige to this day on both sides of the legal line.
Zoniha ends her pacing at an ivory leather couch, lounging upon it with crossed legs as she considers Regulus. The two of them are nothing more than conversational acquaintances at this point (though she certainly considers him to be one of her more interesting ones), so her firsthand knowledge of him is a little sparse. Her impression of Regulus is that of a low-key, no-nonsense man, who cares little about many of the luxuries that his peers, superiors, and juniors enjoy (with the sole exception being fine dining — or, rather, fine desserts and sweets). Gossip taught her that he hadn’t ever expressed any interest in climbing the criminal career ladder beyond being the hired muscle and sometimes carrying out wetwork; his eventual promotion as the top enforcer of the syndicate was a happy accident consisting of the collision between his competence and his complete lack of bullshitting around.
Yet he’s also no soulless worker drone. There’s an intensity to him that Zoniha can’t quite make sense of. She wants to call it ambition — but if it is, it’s not the kind of ambition she’s used to seeing from those who run in similar circles. If it were, she wouldn’t have been so surprised to hear that he’d become Crown. And five days out from Creone’s death isn’t anywhere near enough time for her to properly square the news with what she knows of Regulus.
“A question if I may, Krohnei
,” Zoniha says.
“I thought I told you to call me Regulus.”
“What really happened to Creone?”
He raises a shoulder in a half-shrug. “I turned down an order. He reacted badly.”
She arches an eyebrow at him. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard of someone dying as a result of being disobeyed. Usually that happens to the one doing
“That may be so, but it’s no matter in the end. The problem is that Creone, in his perpetual paranoia and utter delusion, left behind no viable candidates for his position, nor even formally named a successor. If I hadn’t claimed his mantle, the Phoenix would have run the risk of dissolving into chaos as people fought tooth and nail to take over where Creone left off.”
“How very considerate of you,” Zoniha muses, with only the barest touch of sarcasm. She tilts her head to the side, letting a few strands of her lavender-white hair spill over her shoulder and onto her chest. “Yet who’s to say that the Phoenix won’t fall apart under your own wings? How can you expect others to concede to your authority when there’s no clear indication of who has the right to be in charge, as you’ve said? They may be more inclined to accept you as an interim Crown, but if you’re asking me to become your Consort I don’t think you have any such intentions.”
“Correct. And since I do intend to rule, I won’t make the same mistake Creone did, surrounding myself with nothing but fawning lackeys who have more sweet-talk than sense. I may prefer to work alone, but I’d be a fool to think I can take on a role of this magnitude by myself. So, I’d rather keep company with the strong, and do so as quickly as possible in order to preclude other claims to the position. Besides, anyone who cannot hold their own against their equals is unfit to bear the weight of the Crown.”
The implication being that Zoniha herself is included among his equals. Well, she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t flattered. But she wonders what he’s basing it on. She hadn’t even really been sure up to this point that he actually viewed her with anything more than neutrality. “That’s why you’re turning the position of Consort into an actual job, then?”
“I have very little patience for ornaments. Of course I’m aware that the idea of a Consort who actually earns her keep outside of the bedroom is regarded with much superstition, but as it turns out I have very little patience for superstition as well.”
A corner of Zoniha’s lips quirk up in a smile. “Well, as I’ve said, the Bestiary won’t be happy to hear about such bucking of tradition from a young upstart like you. But I don’t suppose you care much about their consternation.”
Regulus remains silent.
“Here’s another question,” she says. “What do you personally gain from filling the power vacuum left behind by Creone?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because this Zoniha would rather like to know what she’s really getting herself in for. If I’m going to be working as closely with you as you suggest, I’d like to have some idea of what’s going on inside my boss’ head.” With easy, practiced grace, she rises from the couch and approaches Regulus, her stilettos clicking on the polished wood floor. “You should be honored, Krohnei
. It’s very rare that I meet a man whose heart I can’t immediately grasp.
“That being said...there are things about you I’m reasonably certain of.” Zoniha almost drapes her arms around his shoulders just to tease him a little, but then she remembers that she has a paying client in the room. So she restrains herself to simply joining him at his side, turning to face the same direction as him with a slightly dramatic twirl. She loosely laces her fingers together behind her back as she shifts her weight to the leg closest to Regulus, extending the other one forward a little in a coquettish manner. “By all accounts, you’re a loyal member of the Phoenix, but I can’t imagine that loyalty is the core of why you’ve become Crown in Creone’s stead. After all, you don’t strike me as a very sentimental man. So there must be something else at play.” She glances up at him. “Are you sure you won’t tell me what really happened that night?”
“I’ve told you all you need to know.”
“Is that so?” She takes a few moments as she arranges the rest of her thoughts into a neat, coordinated pile. “I suppose I’ll have to agree with you there. Whatever happened, the one undeniable fact is that you were there when Creone died. In fact, everyone is saying that you were the only
one there when Creone died. Thus, it’s entirely reasonable for people to assume that you had a hand in his death, and that this was meant to pave the way for you to become Crown.” A conspiratorial smile. “But I don’t believe that.”
“And why not?”
“It just doesn’t seem consistent with what I’ve heard of you. Part of why people think you’re loyal is that you don’t cause trouble when it doesn’t need to be caused, and you get your work done in a timely, efficient manner.” A delicate shrug. “I suppose some would say that being such a good little foot soldier is, in and of itself, rather suspicious, but I’ll take it at face value for now. So let me tell you what I think this is all about.
“Five nights ago, you had a falling-out with Creone that ended in his death. Because of that, no matter what actually happened, you’re now a wanted man by all his supporters.” Zoniha hums. “But you’re too proud to run and hide, aren’t you? That’s
why you stepped up and became Crown. You would rather face your hunters on their turf instead of darting from foxhole to foxhole for the rest of your life. Living like prey, to you, is no life at all. So you took on responsibility that you never wanted, never even truly considered, until the moment Creone breathed his last breath at your feet, all for the sake of keeping your dignity. And you know, I can respect that.
“I can also respect that you’re willing to admit to some of your shortcomings. That’s why you’re interested in hiring this Zoniha, yes? You lack a certain social bent required to maintain the goodwill of your business partners. Or, to put it in your terms: you have very little time for people.”
“For someone who claimed she had no idea who she was getting involved with, you seem to have quite a lot of ideas about it.”
“Well, are you
planning to answer my question?” No response. “As I thought. Now, where was I? Ah, yes.
“You said earlier that you wished to choose a Consort from outside of the Phoenix. Which would be ordinary enough, save for the fact that you also intend to assign your Consort as an intermediary between yourself and the rest of your associates — a major breach of Bestiary tradition. Now why would you ever do such a contentious thing, given that your authority as Crown is already on shaky ground? You’re smart enough to know the consequences...which could only mean that they’re exactly what you want.” Zoniha steps forward and turns to face Regulus, the gaiety gone from her expression. “Do you intend to start a war?”
“A war would serve no one in this instance, least of all myself,” Regulus answers. “That would be a waste of resources that could better used elsewhere. But the fact is that some conflict is inevitable with my rise to power. I simply mean to take advantage of it.”
Zoniha gazes at him for a few seconds, searching his midnight blue eyes.
“It isn’t just about your pride,” she murmurs. “You want the challenge.
There, the first sign of Regulus’ humanity all night: a faint smirk. “Is that so wrong?”
She sniffs, dropping her goddess girl persona with her response. “It’s verging on suicidal, if you really want my opinion. Bringing the Carnelian Kraken and the Emerald Naga to heel is probably doable enough, but I can’t believe you’re willing to piss off the Pearl Minotaur. They’ve been the reigning power in the Bestiary for the last thirty years.”
“The gap that separates the Minotaur and the Phoenix is slimmer than they’d like you to believe. And isn’t it only natural for a new leader to want to stake out his legacy?”
“The only thing that’ll be staked is you if this goes ass-end up,” retorts Zoniha. “And me, if I’m crazy enough to sign on for this.”
“Do I have a choice?” she asks.
“I mean, really
have a choice. Not that ‘join me or join the earthworms’ bullshit you all seem so fond of.”
“I respect you too much to do such a thing to you. Also, I can’t imagine that Serekastel would be very happy if I did away with you. The Phoenix would rather prefer to stay on good terms with them.”
Zoniha barks a laugh, shaking her head. “Holy shit, you really do need me, don’t you? You suck at this flattery thing. You’ll never be able to pull together an alliance with an attitude like that. And brute force is only going to get you so far.” She gives a theatric sigh as she places her hands on her hips. “Well! I suppose I’ll have to give this some
consideration, since it would be pretty awful of me to leave a clearly pathetic man like you out to dry. What would I get out of this deal, besides the personal satisfaction of bailing your ass out of trouble?”
“At least double your salary as a goddess girl, along with the standard medical benefits. Additional compensation can be negotiated as necessary, and I can arrange for new accommodations for you as well.”
“And how long do I have to think over your offer?”
“A week. I’ll send for you through a proxy, as I did tonight. Any other questions?”
“Yeah. Why me?” She intercepts his protests: “Look, I get it. I’m a well-known face, I have people skills, I’m an outsider, so on and so forth. But I’m not the only bitch out there who can walk your talk. I know you’ve met some of the other Serekastel girls; there are a few of them I’d consider my betters, not that you should be spreading that around. So why single me out? We haven’t even known each other for that long.”
Regulus falters, his mouth thinning and his gaze briefly breaking from hers. He exhales.
“Perhaps I simply find you more interesting,” he says. His words are as clipped as bird wings, with any emotion in them grounded from flight. He brushes past her to leave. “Good night, Schwarzelle.
Black Lady. The title for the Consort of the Obsidian Phoenix.
As Regulus closes the front door behind him, Zoniha walks to the window and watches him pass under a row of outdoor lamps. For a brief moment, it almost seems as though their glow fades in his wake.
And as she turns to resume business with her client, so ordinary in looks and character, she can’t help but admit to herself that Regulus isn’t the only one wanting a challenge.