In this story, our simple-minded Night Caste friend causes some trouble in PC-run Greyfalls.
Matara Sen was under attack.
“Ouch.” She kicked her legs, but her assailant would not let go.
Grunting, she threw back her quilt. Zenobia was firmly attached to her toe. Sen shook her leg again, but the kitten hung on, digging its claws into her foot.
“Silly, you can’t eat my toe.”
Zenobia seemed to disagree, so Sen leaned over and carefully detached her. To compensate for the loss of the toe, Sen cuddled with Zenobia for a while, cradling the kitten in her arms as she leaned back down in bed. Zenobia mewled for a bit, and then decided that it would be a good idea to entangle herself in Sen’s hair. That was a short-lived enterprise, and Zenobia soon found herself on the floor.
“Sorry, but you play too rough.”
The kitten mewled again in protest, and then tried to stalk Sen’s feet as she walked to the window to open the curtains. It was already afternoon, and the sun was nowhere to be seen on this grey, nasty day. A few people were out and about on the palace grounds, though Sen didn’t have the best view of the main courtyard between the palace and the fortress. She could only see the southern corner of the yard, by the gate, where the guards were trying to shelter themselves from the frigid rain. Just right for the end of winter.
The water in the basin was cold, but Sen didn’t feel like walking to the sink in the hall to get warm water so she quickly washed her face with soap and pulled a damp comb through her hair. Then she took off her nightgown and washed that too, wringing it out thoroughly before hanging it over the little pot stove to dry. She thought the stove was really great, a small, efficient device that gave off just enough heat to warm the room and dry her clothes. It was an incredible luxury.
Really, her entire room was a luxury, easily twelve feet square. There was more than enough room to hold a bed, a wardrobe, a table, a washbasin, a rack for her weapons, and a box for Zenobia. And all of it had been a gift from Stilgar and Gerran and the others. Gosh, they were nice to her, and for no real reason. She even had money to buy clothes, half a dozen dresses and a couple pairs of pants to wear under her armor. And, of course, there was the red dress. Sen sighed a bit as she opened the wardrobe, fingering the red silk, feeling the dressmaker’s stitches. She hadn’t had an opportunity to wear it since the ball five months ago, but Corvina’s wedding was coming up so she would be able to take it out then.
Sen thought for a moment about what she should wear, before pulling on a thick gray wool dress. The dress only went down to just below the knee, so she had to put on stockings, and then the pair of half-boots that she stored under the bed with the rest of her shoes. That was another luxury – no less than four pairs of footwear, and one of them she could only wear with the red dress. Imagine! Shoes you only wore two or three times a year!
She dropped her dirty socks on the floor for Zenobia to do battle with, and then she stuck a knife into her belt and another into her right boot. She didn’t need the knives for fighting – Sen knew she could beat the stuffing out of anyone in Greyfalls with just her bare hands (well, maybe not Gerran) – but she might need them as tools. A quick check confirmed that she didn’t need to change the paper that lined Zenobia’s box, so after another cuddle she dropped the protesting kitten into its makeshift prison.
“Now, you behave, okay?” Sen said as she pulled on her jacket and gloves. “I’ll be back late tonight.”
She closed the door on the desperate mewling, running her hands through her hair one more time before she twisted it together and bound it up behind her neck with a strip of leather. This section of the palace was quiet, home to a few lower-level functionaries who worked in the various ministries. Most of the rooms were empty so Sen rarely saw anyone, which suited her just fine. She wasn’t exactly trying to hide, not like that confusing Jirikai woman, but she figured keeping a low profile was a good idea.
The cold rain whipped into her face as she stepped out into the courtyard. Keeping her head low she hurried out of Garrison Heights, down the hill to the Academy. It was in between prayer services so the north side of the Academy was quiet, and she easily slipped unnoticed into the subterranean tunnels. She paused to listen outside the door to Samir’s laboratory to make sure it was empty, before effortlessly disabling his lock system and stepping inside. This was the big gamble of her operation. She really, really needed to swipe Samir’s magic pen, but he was in his laboratory so frequently the opportunity to steal it was hard to come by.
But Sen had noticed Samir talking to Nalen Yukia the other day, and she knew what that meant. The two of them would start that whole stupid kabuki dance where they tried to see each other as often as possible while pretending that each meeting was accidental. They would both eat all of their meals at the mess, they would try to walk down the same corridors, and they would act surprised whenever they saw each other, but it was all an effort to spend time together.
Sen thought it was kind of stupid. Why didn’t they just get it over with and have sex? Samir was okay looking, she guessed, and Yukia was really, really pretty – as pretty as Sen had been when she was still a deathknight. Sen had had a prettier face, but Yukia had bigger boobs and her silver hair was kind of neat, if you liked that sort of thing. Why Samir was taking his time with her Sen couldn’t understand. But it worked to her advantage, since it meant he was guaranteed to eat lunch outside of the lab every day, leaving it wide open.
Of course, the real danger was not breaking in and taking the pen, it was the risk that Samir would notice the pen was missing before she could return it. But that was just the risk she was going to have to take. The only time the lab was certain to be unattended was lunchtime, and the only time she could use the pen was at night. She would just have to hope that Samir wouldn’t need the pen in the next twenty-five hours.
She walked through the lab to the drawer where Samir kept the pen, careful not to disturb anything. Papers and instruments were scattered all over the place, and there were several upright boards covered in writing. At least, Sen thought it was writing: she couldn’t understand it, and it didn’t look like any alphabet she’d seen before, but it was arranged like writing. Anyway, Samir was smart enough to figure out what it was. He was smarter than anyone she’d ever met – except for the Mask of Winters, of course. And maybe Declan, too.
Pocketing the magic pen, Sen left as quietly as she had arrived. First stage was over, now on to the second stage! A brief trip through the rain got her back to Garrison Heights, back at the Palace, in fact, heading up to the third floor of the south wing. There wasn’t anyone in the outer office, so Sen walked right inside.
Berthen looked up at her, annoyed. He was standing at his desk with a black haired, nervous looking guy who Sen didn't recognize. They were going over some papers, and by the looks of their boots and the overcoat hanging by the door, they had just been outside.
"Hello, Sen," Berthen said. "Is there something..."
"I wanted to chat," Sen replied cheerfully.
"Well, I'm kind of busy right now. Nils and I are reviewing something important."
"That's okay. I can wait." Smiling, Sen deposited herself in one of the chairs in front of Berthen's desk. She began to hum quietly to herself.
Berthen looked at her, frowning. He took his hat off - it was that shapeless, turban-looking thingy - and rubbed his forehead. His short, greenish blonde hair had been pushed into odd angles by the hat, and there were a few beads of perspiration at the edge of his receding hairline.
"Hrmph," Berthen grunted. "Nils, can you give us a minute? And close the door, will you?"
The nervous looking guy smiled and stepped out of the office, taking some of the papers with him.
"Now, what do you want, Sen?" Berthen said, sitting down behind his desk.
"Oh, I just wanted to talk."
"Merchant stuff? What do you mean?"
"You know, what's making money right now. Is it wood or metal or something else?"
"Making money?" Berthen frowned. "Are you referring to the commodities market?"
"Sure, yeah, whatever."
"Well, there are a number of different factors to consider. Greyfalls is a transshipment port, and as such there is an active commodities market. But, we're not like Nexus - we're too small scale. A lot of our prices depend on Marita and Apollonia, and they react and fluctuate much more rapidly than in Nexus, at least at the micro scale. At the macro scale it's the opposite, since the relative independence of the market means that it takes a while for shifts in one area to affect the whole market."
Sen grinned, trying to hide her confusion. "Awesome. So, what's making money right now?"
"Well, it's impossible to say. What, exactly, are you looking for?"
"Nothing. Well, everything. Do you have a list?"
"I have a list from yesterday of the current prices in Merchant's Square. Do you want that?"
"Yeah! That would be awesome! And do you have anything from, like last month or something? Or anything from Marita?"
"Certainly." Berthen stood up, looking at her askance. "What is this for, Sen? Are you looking to invest? Because I could help you with that, you know."
"Nah, I'm just curious. Looking around." Sen walked over to watch Berthen as he thumbed through a box of papers. He didn't notice her extract a few of the papers and tuck them under her coat. "So, how are you doing?"
Berthen looked startled. "Me? I'm fine."
"Good. You look a little stressed, though." She poked him in the belly.
He scowled and stepped away from her. "I'm fine. Here are the reports of key commodity prices over the past five seasons. Now do you need anything else?"
Sen thumbed through the papers. "Nope, I'm good. Thanks, Berthen. Oh, and if you need me to do anything, you know, sneaky..."
"I'm out of the spy business for the moment, so, no. Besides, the last time we worked together it didn't turn out so well."
Sen blushed. "You mean that whole thing on the bridge? Yeah, that was pretty stupid. But we're past it now, so it's all good, right?" She smiled.
Berthen seemed nonplussed. "Yes, it's all good. Look, if you're finished I really need to be getting back to work."
"Yep, I'm good. Bye-bye, Berthen!"
Sen leaned over and kissed Berthen on the cheek, and then made her way out of the office. Well, that had gone well. Second stage over, on to the third stage. Now she just needed one more piece of information to make everything work. But first, some food.
The palace kitchen was almost always crowded, but if there was one thing Sen knew how to do it was navigate through a kitchen. After dancing around and past the cooks, scullions and serving girls, Sen emerged on the other side with a handful of hardboiled eggs, a piece of cheese, and a large pickle. Sitting down on the broad, formal steps leading down to the gardens, Sen stared at the rain running off the overhang as she peeled the eggs.
It was funny, she thought, how life refused to leave her alone. Or was it fate? That probably made more sense. She was an Exalt after all, and fate was supposed to pay her special attention. But to be here, in Greyfalls, just about as far away from everything as you could get, and then stupid Rolf stupid Bekker pops up, well, that was just too much. And then Khouros Farhad, who'd she never even heard of before, moves in.
At first she didn't believe what the whispers had told her, that this Farhad guy was responsible for killing her sister. So she had snuck into the Guild factor house here in Greyfalls and done some snooping, and it turns out that not only had Farhad done it, he was the one who had given the idea to the Guild in the first place, to get her dad to sell his daughters and his inheritance to the Guild. He was real buddies with the Guild factor, this Drax guy, which was why he had been staying at the factor house.
Sen had considered killing him, really, really, considered it, but she knew it was wrong. But she didn't trust herself to do the right thing, so she followed Heike's advice: when you can't do the right thing, make it impossible to do the wrong thing. That's why she had agreed to go to Yu-Shan, and that's part of the reason why she had followed Samir around all those months; if she wasn't near Farhad, she couldn't kill him. The other part, of course, had been her desire to protect that goofball while he was wandering around by himself with half of Creation out to get him.
Ultimately, it had been the time spent stalking Samir that purged her of the desire to kill his brother. Samir really was a good guy and she just couldn't do that to him, make him unhappy the same way his brother had made her unhappy. And from what little Sen had seen Farhad did seem like a good guy, so maybe he thought there had been a good reason to kill Aja. Of course he was wrong, but it wasn't Sen's place to act as judge and executioner. Fate would take care of it.
It was funny, though, that it had never seriously crossed her mind to kill stupid Rolf stupid Bekker. Killing Farhad to avenge Aja at least made a bit of sense, but killing Bekker to just to make herself feel better never really felt right. Oh, sure, she had considered the idea once or twice, but it was never an option. She had briefly toyed with the idea of giving him a taste of his own medicine, but that wasn't an option either. She wasn't a sicko.
But it was clear that the Guild was evil and that Bekker was evil, and it was clear that all they did was make people suffer. Sen knew she had to do something to take them out, but since wholesale slaughter wasn't a possibility she had to come up with something else. The problem had confronted her during the four months in the wilderness, and now she had a solution. It might require a bit of effort and it wouldn't solve the problem totally, but if it worked the Guild would be finished in Greyfalls and stupid Rolf stupid Bekker would go far, far away.
Just as Sen finished eating the pickle, Proximate Wind returned to Garrison Heights. The warhawk plummeted down towards the barracks, landing with a thump in the parade ground. Sen knew it would take Dawn ten minutes to lock Proxy in his pen, then it would take her another fifteen minutes to change clothes and get to her office. But once she was in her office Dawn would be alone, which was the important thing. Gerran never hung out with Dawn during the days she went on patrol, and instead spent the entire day doing...well...whatever it was Gerran did with his spare time. Sen had never bothered to find out what that was. The important thing was he never bothered to meet with Dawn before dinner, but since it was a rainy day Sen knew Dawn would return from her patrol sooner than normal. That gave her a window of about an hour when she would have uninterrupted access to Dawn, with no risk of Gerran interfering. Not that she was all that worried about Gerran being there, it was just that the fewer people who knew what she was doing, the better.
After waiting for half an hour, Sen stood up and went back into the palace. The other Solars all had offices in the east wing, overlooking the courtyard, but Dawn was the only one who regularly used hers. Saul and Stilgar spent most of their time at the Academy, Samir was only occasionally away from his lab, and Gerran...well, Gerran was a mystery.
Sen bounded up the broad steps of the formal staircase three at a time, spinning past the confused bureaucrats working in the various ministries.
"Hi, here to see Dawn," Sen said to the older woman who acted as the Solars’ secretary. The secretary tried to say something, but Sen breezed past her into Dawn's office.
"Heya Dawn!" Sen chirped.
Dawn was standing by the window, looking out onto the courtyard. She turned around, a slightly confused expression on her face.
“So, how’s it going?” Sen sat on the edge of Dawn’s desk.
“Good. I haven’t seen you since you got back from the Wyld. How was it?”
“The Wyld? Kind of funny. I mean, there were, like cats everywhere, and then we were in this place where we thought we were kids, or we thought we looked like kids, or something. Then we talked to some fairies, who were all like ‘Oh, I’m so great, fight me’ and stuff. But Samir and Saul did a good job at talking to them, but we still think they’re all made of trouble. Gerran got all freaked out by the fairies, but I bet you know that.”
Dawn frowned. “Yes, he told me. But, other than that, the trip was a success?”
“I guess so. We still don’t know everything, but at least we know more than before.”
“Hmm. I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of what we still have to discover.”
“I guess. But we’re Solars, right? If they cause trouble we’ll just kick them in the butt.”
“I hope it’s that easy,” Dawn said, smiling. She sat down behind her desk and gestured for Sen to take a seat. “What brings you around?”
“Just some stuff.” Sen thought for a moment, chewing her lip. “Hey, you’re a merchant, right?”
“Sort of. Mainly I negotiated trade treaties for Metagalapa. I was more interested in the big picture than in the actual goods.”
“Oh. Well, what do you think about the cloth market?”
“Excuse me?” Dawn looked puzzled.
“You know, cloth. We have all kinds of stuff coming through here: silk, cotton, wool, that magic stuff from the spiders. What’s the best stuff?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, what’s your dress made of? I really like the pattern on it.”
It was true – it was a nice dress. Sen thought it was a bit too revealing for someone working behind a desk, but that was Dawn’s decision, not hers. And she had a nice figure, so why not show it off?
“Thank you. I like your –” Dawn looked at Sen, smiling at her earnestly, with her rough gray wool dress, her absurd stockings and boots, her lumpy green coat, her pale blonde hair pulled back from her face in an impossible tangle. And her infallible ability to tell if someone was lying to her. “Um. Thanks. The dress is wool, actually. But not ordinary wool: the really fine wool they weave near Flamerock. Really, it feels more like cotton.”
“Wow, that’s neat. You mind if I feel it?” Sen leaned over.
“No, that’s fine. I like the pattern, too. I got it from a merchant down in the square.”
“Oh, that’s really nice. So, do you think is the best?”
“The best cloth you can get in town. What’s the best buy?”
“The wool is very nice, but the most valuable should be the silk. Most of that comes from Halta and the trade is very new, so I don’t think people recognize just how good it is. I imagine the prices should go up even as the volume that's imported increases.”
“Huh.” Sen frowned. “And if we have a war with the barbarians or something that would force everything overland to Greyfalls. Right?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But that’s possible. Look, what is this about?”
“Just curious. I might need a new dress, you know.”
“Well, you should definitely go to the dressmaker down in Alder Plaza. I had the best time…”
Sen smiled politely as Dawn prattled on about her clothing for several minutes. It was interesting, but not something Sen needed to act on since she already had a nice dress. Maybe in the future she might need two, but for the moment one was enough.
“Hey, thanks a lot, Dawn,” Sen said after a while. “Looks like it’s about dinner time, so I don’t want to keep you.”
“Is it?” Dawn turned around to look outside. “I really carried on there, didn’t I? Sorry for talking your ear off.”
Sen waved her hand. “That’s fine. Look, I’ll see you later. Okay?”
“Right. Good evening.” Dawn stood up and smiled.
Sen left the office, but she didn’t go far. Just in case someone was watching, she used a charm to mask her movements as she ducked in Saul’s office. She needed to do something in Dawn’s office, but she couldn’t do it while her fellow Solar was there. Dawn was way too observant for Sen to try tricking her.
Luckily, Dawn must have had a date for dinner or something, because she left soon after the clocks sounded for the nineteenth hour. Sen waited a few minutes for the secretary to leave, then she ghosted over to Dawn’s office. A charm disabled the lock on the door, while a simple twist of her knife opened the cabinet Dawn had looked at during their discussion about cloth pricing. Sen frowned at the wealth of paper inside the cabinet, but another charm allowed her to sift through the cabinet rapidly and find what she was looking for in a few seconds.
Sen took out the papers she had swiped from Berthen’s office. Yep, they matched up with what he had given Dawn. Out came Samir’s pen, and in a minute she had written up a new set of tariffs on cloth in Greyfalls. Tariffs that strongly favored Haltan silk, but put a steep charge on the import of cotton. Thanks to the pen, no one would be able to tell them apart from the originals.
After putting everything in Dawn’s office back in place, Sen snuck into Berthen’s office and returned his papers too. Berthen was actually in the office, working on math or something, but Sen just used a charm and he ignored her. That guy needs to have more fun, Sen thought. Too bad Dawn’s with Gerran now. Oh well, stage three done, only stage four left.
The rain had let up outside and the clouds had begun to clear, allowing occasional flashes from the crescent moon to shine through. Sen hummed happily to herself as she tromped down the hill towards Merchant’s Square.
We had times apart
We had times together
She was pledged to me
For worse or better
When it mattered most
I let her down
That’s the way it goes
It will all work out
The song floated through Sen’s head as she scouted out the Guild’s factor house, just off the square. She loved that song and how they used to sing it in Calin at the end of the year, a sad, bittersweet tune for a sad, bittersweet time. Aja would never sing, but she loved to listen. She had left it to Sen to make all of the noise.
Well, Sen wouldn’t be making any noise tonight if she was going to break in. Security at the factor house was tight, but it had some holes. Really, it had to, since it was impossible to make a house in a residential neighborhood totally secure unless you made it into something that resembled a prison. The guards were all located on the lower level, with half a dozen by the doors and another half a dozen wandering around on patrol. The windows were mostly narrow, shuttered affairs, and the doors were thick and sturdy.
The biggest gap in the security was on the roof, where the guards never went. Given the distance between the factor house and the neighboring buildings it was reasonable for the Guild to think that the roof was inaccessible, and maybe it was - to ordinary thieves. Sen, however, was anything but ordinary.
A little trickle of essence allowed her to climb one of the adjacent buildings by clinging to the wall, and another expenditure allowed her to leap the fifty feet to the roof of the factor house. The only real challenge was doing it silently, but the cocoon of Sen's anima banner muffled any noise she might have made. Opening the window by jimmying it with her knife was a piece of cake, and then she was inside.
Sen felt a rush of excitement as she crept down the hall. Boy, this was fun! The sneaking around had always been her favorite part of working for the Mask of Winters, sliding past people without them ever seeing you, seeing their secrets, knowing their innermost thoughts. That had been the best. The seduction stuff had been okay, too, but usually she had left that kind of thing to Typhon. And, she had to admit, the killing hadn't been boring, either. In retrospect, most of what she had done had been bad, but it sure had been fun at the time.
The top floor of the factor house, the fifth floor, was devoted to slave's quarters, but most of them were already in bed so sneaking past was no problem. She slid past the next floor, too, but she stopped at the third floor. This was where the business offices were - her target. Drax's office was at the end of the hallway, but there was a light on in one of the rooms between Sen and the office, and she could hear people talking. She cautiously snuck up to the open door.
"So they approved it?" A woman's voice. Tired. Whatsername. Teren. The factor for Greyfalls city.
"Yes, but frankly I'm surprised they did." A deep, rough voice. Edvin Drax. Again, Sen felt a little niggle at the back of her head. She knew Drax from somewhere, but she couldn't quite figure out where.
"Oh?" said Teren. "Why?"
"Because they blery hate us." A voice with a harsh, clipped accent. Rolf Bekker. "The verdamnt Anathema all hate us. We've talked to all of them now, except for the woman. Denton hates us, Khouros tried to kill us, Stilgar just gives us the runaround, and Cindarra, well, I think he hates us, but he might want to join up with Khouros and todent us. Kak."
He stepped away for a moment, bringing the flames of his anima under control. Sen was curled up in a ball on the bed. Her hands were bound and her nostrils were filled with blood and the smell of burnt hair. She started to whimper, but then she caught herself. She didn't want him to hear, didn't want him to shove something into her mouth again to stop her from making noise, stop her from being a bad girl.
The whispers went away.
"Why is that?" Teren asked.
Drax sighed. "I think it's because they don't care for the way we treat our slaves. Trafficking in the ravaged would probably be enough, but the brothel seemed to get them especially angry."
"Bunch of verdamnt hypocrites," Bekker spat. "They've got brothels and slaves all over this country, and ours are treated better than most."
"Whatever the reason," Drax said, "we know for a fact that they don't like us. Rolf and I talked to Cindarra this morning to sound him out, and he spent the entire time giving us the evil eye. I was hoping that there might be one member of their circle that liked us, but it doesn't look that way."
"So why did they approve our expansion in the city then?" Teren again.
"Maybe it's because Berthen likes us," Drax said. "He's always been reasonable, and I've known him for ten, fifteen years. Or maybe it's because of the other exalts. Maybe Auspicious Dawn is lobbying for us, or maybe it's Nalen Landrey."
"Now, hold on," Teren interjected. "We don't know what Dawn thinks, and we don't even know if Nalen is one of them."
"All signs point to it," Drax said. "Though he hasn't been seen for a couple of months now, so who knows? And I agree with you about Dawn: she's Metagalapan, and they're not the kind to like slavery or the Guild. But I'm not discounting it."
As interested as this conversation was, Sen had to keep moving. She spent some essence to jump onto the ceiling, using the position to sneak past the open door and the Guild factors within. The office was at the end of the hall and it was simplicity itself to open the lock. A quick search uncovered the necessary documents, and then Samir's pen leaped into action.
Sen had to be very thorough here. She couldn't just falsify the purchase orders, she had to adjust all of the data that the purchases were based on. That included the market prices in Greyfalls and Apollonia, the tariff rates, Drax's calculations for shipping and storage costs - everything. But the pen did a marvelous job and all of the forms were changed, perfect copies of the originals, save for the edits that Sen made.
When it was all done, the Guild was the proud owner of most of the eastern Scavenger Land's cotton stock. Cotton that would be highly overcosted and almost impossible to sell in Greyfalls, and equally impossible for the Guild to store in Greyfalls, given their lack of warehouse space and the volume of cotton. The Guild would hemorrhage money and hopefully be forced to eliminate their entire Greyfalls operation to cut costs.
Of course, this was a long term goal. Sen knew she had to shepherd the process and ensure that the Guild kept on losing money, and she had to make sure that the other merchants in Greyfalls exploited the Guild's missteps. Later tonight, a merchant named Penyo who owned a fleet of barges would have his books altered to take advantage of the Haltan silk trade, and there were a few others who Sen planned to help.
It was all very boring and complicated, and part of Sen wanted to do something more direct. But the Guild was a business operation, and if they stopped making money they would stop existing, they would close their office and their employees would have to work somewhere else. Somewhere far away. And maybe, if those employees were incompetent enough, the Guild would make them disappear.
"Bye-bye, Rolf Bekker," Sen said quietly to herself.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey