Anyone watching The White Lady Tavern closely that night would have seen two figures slipping out cautiously amongst the rowdier patrons – one portlier gentleman with a slight limp and silver hair shining in the moonlight, and one taller and much more graceful man. They were careful to leave separately, so that the keener and more observant among the drinkers might not connect them together. The portlier man, Lord Yona, walked a little ways north from the tavern and ducked into a side street, where he had a carriage waiting quietly to take him home. The younger man, however, turned south to leave the city. He had a job to do.
Errel Benris was a dancer. He was a street magician and an actor. He was a thief and a swindler. He was a beggar and a pickpocket. He knew the streets as if he had grown up in them. He had the lightest touch of any thief in Adrin, and could boast of picking the pocket of the Mayor himself. He was lithe and nimble, and easily held his own against any number of opponents in a street fight, no matter how much bigger they were. However, his most important skill was the one he was best known for: he was an assassin. Subtle poison; knife between the ribs; arranged accident: he could do it all. His preference, of course, was a blade in any form – throwing, slicing, or stabbing. Whispers in dark alleyways spoke of the King of Knives, though no-one would ever dare use that name to his face. He was all business with those he saw as his betters, but he could be very unpredictable amongst those he considered lesser than he, and that unpredictability usually ended in someone buying a beefsteak to put on a black eye, or having to walk on crutches for a few months. Even so, those he considered friends would hear no word spoken against him. If there was one thing besides assassination that Errel did well, it was to command loyalty, trust, and respect.
But it was not for Errel's loyal friends that Yona had met with him this night. Apparently, there was a man whose continued existence was inconvenient to the Royal House. It was usually the inconvenient ones whom Errel was hired to deal with. This particular man was an upstart, of a sort. House Hanach had murdered his family and he had gone mad and sworn revenge. Errel had no professional respect for Hanach's methods: fire was a rather clumsy and inelegant method of causing death, in his opinion. However, this madman Derion had now caused total chaos in the city of Marronay, and was threatening the peace of Upnar. He'd already mostly destroyed Hanach. Half the Houses in the country had joined him in his insanity just to avoid the same ruinous fate. It was rumoured among the still-faithful Houses that he had created an army, and planned to march on Adrin city in the Spring to challenge the Royal House itself. Errel's task was to make him slightly less inconvenient before he could get that far. Kill him, and his rebellion would crumble. The Houses would lose their direction and return with their tails between their legs, begging for forgiveness for their disloyalty. The king might hold them at arm's length for a while, maybe show extra favour to the Houses that did not play turncoat, but all would return to normal in time.
Errel stopped only once on his route out of the city, to pack a travelling bag. He rented a small room above a shop when he was in Adrin, and was well-liked by the landlady for his quiet habits while at home and for his tidy space. He never kept any of his weaponry and other tools out in the open, of course; he'd pried up a floorboard in one corner for the storage of such items. He hadn't decided which method of death was most appropriate for the man, so for this trip, he picked out a few of his better blades and two of his very favourite poisons, so as to have some options available. Of course, on his person he never carried less than six knives tucked away in various hidden places amongst his clothes, as well as a sword on his hip, so he was hardly unarmed, but he liked to be prepared. Bread, cheese, and dried meat he tossed into the bag after the less savoury tools, followed by a skin of water. A spare cloak and shirt stuffed down the side of the pack completed the outfit, and in less than ten minutes he was on his way.
By dawn he was well beyond the walls of the city, moving southeast.
Tem had been busy over the past months. After the first shocking realisation, he had gathered his thoughts and began to devise a plan. House Derion was by no means one of the Greater Houses, but Tem was a sharp businessman, and had been slowly but steadily building the fortunes of his House, to a point where he was nearly rivalling the greatest of the Greater Houses. While assistance of the kind he needed was not cheap, this meant that he was not exactly suffering under a lack of resources.
He began by hiring hitmen and thugs. They were mostly fairly inept, the kind of men who would rather smash a head in with a wooden club during daylight hours than subtly knife a man between the ribs in the dark, but they would serve the purpose.
There were four satellites of the Greater Houses in Marronay, and three satellites of the Lesser, of which latter group Derion was one. Derion was chiefly a trading House, and so had the most presence in Marronay, a harbour city, but Hanach and Noul, two of the Greater Houses, also made themselves known in the city. The other two Greater and two Lesser did not maintain a particularly strong presence, but that was to Tem's benefit.
The thugs' task was to cause trouble between Hanach and Noul, and to make it seem like the remaining Houses (always excepting Derion, quietly standing on the sidelines) were siding with one or the other. In practical terms, this meant seizing known associates of the various Houses, brutally murdering them, and leaving their bodies sprawled conspicuously in locations around the city where they were guaranteed to be found. Within two weeks, more than ten corpses had been left artistically near both Noul's and Hanach's houses, and tensions were rising. Street brawls were breaking out among rival Houses' members, encouraged, of course, by Tem's thugs, and ignored by the City Watch, due mostly to the subtle application of certain precious metals in the direction of the Head Watchman. Some might have said, truthfully, that the Head Watchman was not particularly interested in putting extra effort into stopping the fighting, and therefore the gold was perhaps misspent; even so, Tem was taking no chances.
As the House infighting progressed, Tem began also to pay off deliverymen and tradesmen to skim off about a third of the products and supplies coming into the city, especially those going to the other Houses, stockpiling it in a warehouse, meaning that he would control a fair amount of the food and other goods in the city, and that the other Houses would lack it. Less food meant rising tempers, and, in turn, meant that Marronay was going exactly where he wanted her to.
Each House began to be wary of the others. If Hanach was killing Noul men, then Noul would raise the stakes and arm their men better. If Noul armed their men better, Hanach did also, and would raise the stakes again, telling their men not to hold back if they met a Noul man on the street. Neither wanted to appear weak, though both wanted to protect their own interests.
Within another month, Houses Hanach and Noul, as well as the other four Houses represented in Marronay, started sending messages to their respective originating residences, each side begging urgently for assistance against the other. Troops of the Houses' private soldiers began arriving, a trickle at first, and then more quickly, as the fighting became worse and worse. Most work in the city slowed to a near-halt. All of Tem's plans had been a catalyst towards this state of affairs. The only occupation that continued to do well were those employed by the city to keep the streets clean. Hardly a day passed where there had not been a skirmish resulting in at least one dead man, and for the most part those bodies lay where they fell, until the street cleaners could cart them outside the walls to burn.
In the midst of the chaos, Tem carefully cultivated friendships with particular members of the city – especially the Mayor, who was growing increasingly nervous about the state of affairs in his city, but who was powerless to act. His City Watch was secretly under Tem's control through the corruption of the Head Watchman, and the Houses under his mayoralty were acting erratic and unstable, nay, even violent. The rest of the citizens of Marronay were fishers and merchants; they would not get in the way of the Houses, it wasn't their place to do so. The Mayor was becoming afraid for his own skin. He could not leave Marronay, as that would seem to condone the conflict currently wracking her, but he felt terror when he thought of staying. It was at this point that Tem deliberately became friends with him, to try to influence him. As far as the Mayor was concerned, and as Tem desperately wanted him to believe, Derion was his rock – the only sane House in the region – and he clung to that rock with all the strength that a drowning man could muster. Tem encouraged it. He visited the Mayoral home nearly every day, reassuring the Mayor that he was doing everything he could to settle the differences between the Houses. The Mayor was still worried, and soon took to drinking, which Tem also encouraged, as he needed him as suggestible and pliable as possible.
As the months progressed, Noul's and Hanach's feud became larger and more widespread. Their individual satellites in other cities also started fighting, and other Houses started siding with one or the other. Their resources dwindled, and their soldiers' numbers decreased. They could not recruit men fast enough. The Mayor of Marronay was drinking in terror from dawn until dusk, completely useless to the city. Tem was as happy as he could be. His plan was moving exactly in the direction he intended. Meanwhile, he had fingers in another couple of pies. He'd hired the thugs, paid off the tradesmen, and bribed the watchmen, but further, he'd begun a spy network. It had started in Marronay, but he'd built it up through the entirety of Upnar province. Not one thing happened but he heard about it, in the form of a neatly written report that silently arrived on his desk at the end of each day. The network served a dual purpose. He received all the news that he could handle, but also, the people he had hired as spies were involved in legwork on his behalf, quietly inciting a rebellion. As the Great Houses weakened, the various serfs and peasants, tradesmen and craftsmen, and anyone else who might feel subjugated by or resentful towards the nobility would have a proportionally larger chance of overthrowing them. Tem's spies whispered in ears, and murmured in crowds, slowly but surely bringing the metaphorical cooking pot of the province to near-boiling. When the time was right, they would rise, and Tem would be their Emperor – and then, oh then, he would crush every House within his reach.