Chapter 381: Keeper of Secrets
The time was eleven, and the sun was shining bright. And yet Seven Cats Inn was still dark and dreary. The dilapidated inn located in Novigrad's southeast outskirts rose to fame thanks to the seven stray cats roaming around the premises.
Naturally, the number of cats exploded over the years, though the thugs and goons would kidnap many of the new kittens every year. Still, even more kittens were born, keeping the number of cats roaming around the place at a consistent ten or so.
Jurgen was in his usual black, greasy cloak, and the bounty hunter trudged down the path filled with feces and potholes. His face was covered in bruises, and a visible scab formed on the bridge of his nose.
There was a heavy sack hanging from his shoulders, and his mustache was untrimmed. He looked just like a hunter who came back from a hunt in the woods. Every step he took made a sickening quelch, and he eventually arrived at the inn. Underneath the peeling white wall, a fat tabby cat meowed with every step Jurgen took. For a moment, it felt like an unskilled musician was holding a mini-performance outside the inn.
Jurgen looked unfazed as he made a slow turn into the dark, dank alleyway. He left the drawing of a dagger on the moss-filled walls with a charcoal pencil and advanced deeper into the alleyway. Then he leaned on the wall and rested his eyes.
Sounds of hurried footsteps traveled through the air, and in came a man fully covered in a black cloak and hood. He went past Jurgen and left through the other end of the alleyway, and then the man circled the inn for five minutes before returning to the alleyway.
"Take the child and come with me, Muskrat," he whispered quickly at the bounty hunter as he pulled his hood off. Underneath it was a fair, pudgy, and solemn face. His eyes were slanted, but the look in them was as sharp as a knife. His cheeks were so heavy they were jowls.
A frown furrowed Jurgen's brows, and he opened his eyes, though there was anxiety within them.
Before he could say anything, the fat man had already glanced at the sack on his shoulder, but there was no child within. The only thing inside was yellowing hay. Shocked and alarmed, the pudgy man tried to run, but a silhouette leapt down from the walls and stopped him from escaping.
The first thing the pudgy man saw was a pair of amber, viper eyes and a scowl of fury. He then heard someone jumping down behind him, and the man realized he was surrounded. He hung his head low in defeat and raised his hands to surrender.
Jurgen and his correspondent were tied to a chair in a dark chamber sleeping in rural Novigrad. He was looking around nervously only to see a few men glaring at him. Letho, Auckes, and Gawain were contemplating what to do next.
"This is Sebastian," Gawain said. "He's one of the council members and the owner of two boutiques in the business district. His clientele? The rich and the powerful."
Sebastian was nervous.
"He acquired a spot on the council through his donations," Gawain said, raising his voice to let the man hear him. "It's been less than two years since his addition to the council. And now I ask you, Sebastian, why did you come after my orphanage? And why do you think you can challenge the witchers and me? Just because you have a bounty hunter on your side? Or do you think your businesses can support your endeavor?"
Sebastian chose to remain silent.
"I've told you everything I knew, witchers. Please, spare me!" the pale, gaunt Jurgen begged.
"Shut up, you!" Auckes taped Jurgen's mouth and turned his deathly sharp look to the pudgy man. If looks could kill, Sebastian would have died. "You're not making things easy for us, Mr. Senator. We might be forced to take some… extreme measures. Witcher Signs, so to speak. Oh, no, wait. That'd make things too easy for you. Bear with us here, for soon you'll lose control of your own bowel movements. Imagine this: your immaculate, bespoke attire soiled and caked in your own shit and piss…"
"No, wait, I'll talk!" Sebastian shouted. "Orloff, witchers, please, calm down." Sebastian tried to force a smile, but it was stiff. His eyes were glinting with cowardice and fear. "You got me. I'll tell you whatever I know."
The witchers nodded at him, and the men stared at the senator.
A sigh escaped Sebastian's lips, and panic disappeared, replaced by dark sadness and sorrow. He looked like a man who had just lost all hope in life, and the light in his eyes seemed to dim.
"I had no choice. Before I came to Novigrad, I was a resident of Redania's capital, Tretogor. I ran a tailor shop there and lived with my daughter, Marianne. It was a simple but happy life. Ever since my wife died from abnormal labor, I've cherished Marianne. She's the light and soul of my life. And yet fate played a cruel joke on us. Four years ago, my lovely Marianne came down with throat distemper. Try as I might, I couldn't find any cure for her. And she died from complications."
He shed a tear, and snot seemed to be drooling from his nose. "I moved to Novigrad and started anew to forget my past. Thanks to my craftsmanship, my business started to boom. And then two years ago, I ran into a girl in the slums by chance." His lips were trembling, and his eyes were glistening with tears. There was a hint of a smile on his lips. "She looked just like Marianne. I was overjoyed. Ecstatic. I thought perhaps that was the Eternal Fire's blessing. It blessed me with another daughter. A chance at redemption."
He was almost shouting at that point. "I swore I would take her in and provide her with the best things life had to offer. But then a few brats chased her away, so I ran after her, shouting and calling out to the girl." There was regret in his eyes. "And yet she kept running away. I couldn't catch up to her, all because I was fat. I tried my best to find that girl. Even set up a request on the bulletin board, but in the end…" He gave the men a fearful look.
"She joined the orphanage, didn't she?" Auckes gave the man a knowing look.
"What's her name?"
"I don't know, but her hair shines as brightly as the afternoon sun. She's about seven or eight years old, and she's a frail kid. But she has a beautiful face."
"Why didn't you come to us, then?" Gawain asked. "If you were nice to her, she might have gone with you."
Sebastian's jowls trembled. He gulped and stared at the men carefully. "Y-You're an infamous man, and I thought you had other plans for the children. You did build the orphanage in a fairly secluded place, so I thought I shouldn't make any outrageous requests."
Gawain laughed and shook his head. Oh yeah. Everyone still thinks Orloff is a pervert.
"Taking someone who belongs to you would spell the end of me." Sebastian turned his attention to the silent bounty hunter. "So I hired a veteran to take Marianne away when your attention was elsewhere. I'm sorry I-I crossed you." The man struggled. His eyes were filled with genuine guilt, and it looked like he might grovel to the men to pay for his mistakes.
"I'll take any punishment, but please, let me see the child!"
A long silence ensued, and the men exchanged a look.
All of a sudden, Auckes snickered and ruined the dramatic air, and then he pretended to clap. "That was remarkable acting, senator."
"The movement of your brows, the frequency of your blinks, and even the tremblings of your facial muscles. They were perfect," Gawain continued. He spent most of his life pretending to be someone else, and the experience granted him some insight into acting.
"And that's the biggest flaw." Letho smiled. "You were kidnapped by a few mutants and the infamous Collector—I mean infamous before a particular moment in time, Collector. Pardon me—and yet you managed to play the part of a worried father looking for his daughter even in a dire situation like this. But then a perfect act is also why we know you're a fake."
"Did you graduate from the school of theater? Or are you one of their acting staff members?" Auckes clasped his hands together and cracked them as he snarled at the senator.
The witcher stabbed a scalpel into the table's surface. "Since you love acting so much, we'll play with you. This time, you're playing a hero who won't yield no matter what, while we're going to be your tormentors." Auckes smiled at Gawain. "You might want to leave, Collector. It's going to be bloody."
Gawain was not worried in the least. In fact, he was gushing with excitement. The instinct bubbling within Orloff's body was telling him to stay and witness the bloody interrogation, but he held it down. "Don't kill them, you two."
And then the door was shut. But then the screams started.
"No! Not there! NOOOOOOO!"
Gawain leaned on the wall and closed his eyes. The screams and howls of terror were like nectar to his ears. He felt his chest heave, and his cheeks were getting red with indulgence, but Gawain quickly shook his head and slapped himself.
He muttered something under his breath and left the place.
Half an hour later, the witchers emerged from the chamber looking all solemn.
"Did you find anything, witchers?" Gawain approached them. "Is he related to Bedlam, Cleaver, or someone in the council?"
Letho shook his head, the look on his face grim. "We used Axii on him and subjected the guy to torture, but his answer is still the same."
"Maybe we made a mistake." Gawain rubbed his chin. "Perhaps he was telling the truth."
"No. Something's telling me he has a secret." Auckes looked sure of himself.
Letho rubbed his shiny head. "There's another possible explanation for this: Sebastian is a master at keeping secrets because he was trained for it. Neither Signs nor torture can affect him, but only the people of an ancient, gigantic kingdom have the resources to build an intelligence department capable to administering that kind of training."
Something somber was hanging in the air. They could smell the coming of another crisis, and Gawain turned his gaze to the ground. Is there no avenue to make the man tell us his true goal?
"Witchers, I have an idea." Gawain balled his fists and loosened them up. There was a hint of trepidation hanging on his face. "I can mimic Sebastian and read his memories. I am a doppler after all. And I can find out why he's really here."
Delighted, the witchers were about to ask Gawain to go on with it, but they noticed the dilemma in his eyes.
"There's a restriction to that, isn't there?"
"I am a relatively young doppler, and my powers are limited," Gawain answered bitterly. "Once I change into someone else, switching back to Orloff will prove to be a difficult task, unless I can witness his corpse again. His complete corpse. Alas, you've tossed him into the waters."
If Gawain changed into Sebastian, he would never be able to change back into Orloff. He would lose his life of luxury and all the power he had, while the witchers would lose a powerful ally.
"Forget it. There must be another way." Letho shook his head. "At least we have a lead now. I'll scour his house and see if there's any other clue."
Auckes said, "Gawain, contact the other gang lords and find out what they're doing. See if they're related to this guy."
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