During the day, the troops of double-bent bearers lumering in and out of the estate were throuhgly searched by guards and house inspectors. There was no way past the outer sentries. There were surely a tensome more guards inside, making certain the bearers didn't quietly disappear into the bowels of the complex. And once inside the compound, who knows what would happen if she were caught.
It had been a mistake to accept the commission. If the wage hadn't been so unbelievably outrageous, she'd never have agreed.
She reconsidered her options. She could just take the advance they'd given her, a fortune unto itself, and skip off to some outland island, beyond the reach of the League. But they'd eventually find her and get their money back. Usurious interest included. She could really run-- perhaps buy a ship outright, or even a shipping route or two for that matter-- but she dismissed the thought. What little professional honour the public courts had left her compelled her to finish the job. Anyway, she wasn't much of a sailor.
So she'd have to get past those infernal guards.
Sneaking in just might be accomplished, if she was very lucky. Several ideas were already taking shape in her mind. One of them had to work. Getting out to spend her fortune would be the real trick.
Disguised as a nightstroller, she sat on the opposite side of the narrow street studying the estate. Sparrow Street, the address of all respectable and fabulously wealthy merchant clans, was deserted at this hour but for freelance moonlighters, awaiting invitations from off-duty house staff. And there were precious few even of them selling their services on a sweltering Earthday night.
Most of them would be at the Liming. That's where all of Terin was except for the ultra-rich, who had no taste for the crude company of unwashed rabble. Makri sighed. That's where she'd be if she had any spare coin. Which, despite having fully half a fortune, she still couldn't scrape up. Her luck.
She could see light blinking from the windows of the low, elegant two-storey structure behind the wall. Fat old Gern Pag was probably in his treasury, counting his receipts. She had no idea what merchant Clans did behind their walls, plotting and scheming and concocting plans to trick rivals out of lucrative trade routes. She wouldn't know what to do with that kind of money. She smiled for an instant, a dream or two flitting across her mind's eye. She could make a few suggestions on how to dispose of some of that cash.
The Pag had the worst repuation in Terin. Sooner or later their enemies were found floating in Muck. Often worse. Some were never heard from again. Rumour had it the Pag's cats were very well fed. When a clan's eldest son sits on the Tilarium, it need have no fear of Judges or their Inquisitors. The Pags were untouchable.
Which was, perhaps, why she was being paid such an obscene fee. But if she was to take this kind of risk, she wanted to be able to get quick passage out of Terin, with more than enough left over to set herself up in a sleepy, naive Outland town. She didn't even want to speculate as to why someone wanted the seal. Presumably it was to falsify documents and embarass-- or perhaps even ruin-- the Pag. Someone with a Clan seal could circulate fake receipts, and collect favours never given. No; whoever paid her fee could probably do that anyway, with that much wealth. Much more likely, it was blackmail, for some obscure and lofty purpose. Ultimately it wasn't her concern, so long as she was paid. And could spend the money.
After half an hour, Makri reasoned she'd learned everything that could be expected about the estate from the outside. She decided to join the monthly festivities. It had been sixty very long days since the last Liming, and she was itching for release. She'd find someone to lend her a copper or two between here and the Square.
The streets were busier than usual closer to the Square. Normally quiet with its odd, early-closing eccentric shops, the short distance of Mogle's Street was almost impassable. The festival was probably in full chaotic splendour by now. Maybe she could find someone to buy her something to eat. She knew a few of the merchants, one or two rather intimately, and they'd probably be well-disposed to drop a bit of dinner her way. She might even be able to find a few of her friends, if they weren't in someone's bed already.
The crowd jostled her from side to side. Moving through it was virtually impossible. Near the middle of the street, the Nightstroller's feather cap she'd borrowed fell off. She bent down to retrieve it, and when she looked up, she was staring into Haran's face.
He was dressed in his most severe soldier's robe, the blazing white worm-silk fabric freshly washed. His brown, muscled chest was bare in the formal uniform. He was breathing heavily. He'd forced his way across the plaza to catch her. And anyone with any sense made way for Haran.
The bright blue insignia of Clan Martin was pinned to his shoulder. Had it been that long since she'd last spoken to him? He'd found a new sponsor so soon?
"Makri, it is you, I didn't believe it," he said, taking her hand. "I'd heard you'd fallen on hard times , but...", glancing involuntarily at her feather cap, "...you know..." He pauses for a long moment, trying valiantly to conceal a note of pity, utterly failing, "you could have come to me. I could have lent you smoney, until you found more jobs -- "
Makri had almost forgotten her disguise. She yanked off the cap. "No," she said, shaking her head, "It's not like that. I just borrowed this. I'm not that desperate. Besides, if that's what I wanted to do, I wouldn't have to freelance. I could join one of the best Houses in the city, as I'm sure you'll vouch." She smiled mischievously. "What're you doing in uniform? I'd have thought you'd be liming by now."
Haran straightened, putting his hand to his dagger, striking an official pose, for all the world like the statues around the Auditorio. "No, I'm working. I got a full contract. The Martin pay well, in gold, and there's less chance I'll be killed by some lowlife, 'cause they only deal in outland goods. But I 've got to put up with the Gern's weird rules."
"Yes, lots of 'em, and they're specific. No... liming. At least, not during the week, and not publicly. So I can't go to the Festival. That's why the contract's so good. No-one else'll take it."
"Are those rules legal?"
"We get paid well, we don't complain."
She laughed tersely, the flush of her own worries returning. She fingered the soft, fine silk of his Clan sash with its expensive blue dye. "Nice. You must be living pretty well, now", she said, and pinched his waist just below his short tunic. "And I see it's already going to your belly."
He pushed her hand away and stepped back. "No really, Makri, I can't be seen fraternizing, especially with you dressed like that. If we're going to talk let's go somewhere less open."
Makri imitated his serious expression for a moment, mocking, and then gave him a jesting sneer. She pointed at the more-or-less empty Ringman's Park. The two of them made their way to the base of a huge palm tree and sat away from the road. Haran's eyes darted nervously around the park until he was satisfied no-one had taken notice of them.
Makri took a moment to examine his face. He looked like the Haran she'd known for most of her life, even if he seemed a little tired. He was still one of the most handsome men she knew. Certainly, he was one of Terin's best soldiers. He'd worked hard all his life to get a contract with one of the big clans. But despite his early middle age, a life of living on the edge showed. Already, there were traces of lines.
He held her hand. "So," he said, "I heard you got into some trouble two months ago with the Barenjer. Breach of contract, or something. You went to court."
Makri laughed, a tinkling sound to Haran's ears. She started to scrape away the nightstroller's makeup. Sweat and humidity left the black band around her eyes smeared down her tawny brown face. "No," she said, wiping her hands on the undergrowth, "They wanted to 'amend' the contract after we signed it, and when I didn't go along, they fixed it so the original conditions were impossible to fulfill. The Adjudicator threw it out, but the fiasco blackballed me. I was getting pretty desperate. But I got a good job a couple days ago."
Haran glanced up the street, making sure no one had seen them yet. "I've heard a bit. Tell me about the deal. You can, right?"
Makri shrugged. "Well, I can't say much..."
"Not even to me?"
"...Except that they paid me in ylirium."
She paused for effect.
The ylirium they'd given her could buy a dozen berths at the Port or a very sizable estate in Upper Town or one of the Valleys. It was far more money than either of them could have expected to see in their entire lifetimes, put together. She couldn't really imagine what she could buy with it.
Makri reached up and pushed Haran's gaping jaw shut.
"Close your mouth, you're drawing flies."
"Ylirium? In advance?" Haran choked. "Makri, that isn't a contract, it's suicide! What do they want you to do, case the Zeare's Estate?"
She frowned. "No, nothing like that. I'm not insane. No-one could break into the Zeare's estate. Not even a sorcerer. You'd have to be completely stupid. I knew someone who tried, and he ended up in the Zeare's damned zoo. No agent even dreams of it. Except in nightmares. No, don't worry, it's, um, just...
"...Just one of the Great Clans."
Haran's face twisted in shock, his eyes wide. "By the Charter!, woman, you should put that cap back on and stroll the Dinges, you'd be safer there than accepting poisoned money. It's a plot you're in, and there'll be blood before the end of it. Their schemes kill the likes of you and me. Who hired you?"
She ignored him. When she was sure there was no-one coming up the street, Makri unfolded the sarong she carried in a waist-pouch and changed clothing. Haran glanced away, uncomfortable with her casualness. There was no-one else nearby to take notice.
Admittedly, time had passed, but they'd spent far too many nights together for either of them to feign modesty now. He shouldn't have been embarassed. She was still young, and even other women admired her figure, but surely of all people Haran... but then she remembered his contract. She giggled. The sacrifices people make.
"Remember the Twinday night when I turned 20? My Ascension Day? You didn't hide your eyes then, Haran."
He grimaced. "Please, don't remind me. Not now. Just get dressed, quick. I told you, if I'm caught with you, I'll be dismissed without pay. Besides...." He stopped in mid-sentence, not needing to finish the thought.
Makri tied her sarong and piled the rest of her clothing next to her. "I know, I know. I don't want to talk about it... but it's been so long. We could go somewhere, perhaps..."
Makri took Haran's hand, and their fingers interlocked. This was the Liming, after all, and she didn't want to spend it alone. And there was none more ideal to spend it with.
Haran studied his sandals. "No, I don't think so, Makri. It's too tempting. Even if I didn't have this contract, come morning you'd just slip away again."
With that, a long silence settled. Makri took his hand, studied it, traced the well-worn lines in his palm, and rested her head against his arm. They sat still, wordless, for a few moments. A wall of artificial formality threw itself up between them, built of the bricks of long memory and unbreachable distance.
Haran fidgeted, obviously distressed, bit it was he who spoke first. "Tell me what's going on, Makri. Who you working for?"
Makri sighed. "I can't. It's somewhat, you know, delicate. I'm hired now, they've paid me, and I can't talk. Besides, it's pretty big."
"I'll bet. It's bigger than you for sure. I know you. You can't lie to me. Why can't you tell me who you're working for?"
"I don't know who they are", she finally admitted, somewhat ashamed. It was deeply unprofessional to accept an anonymous contract. "A man came looking for me two days ago. He had a bar of ylirium. I had it checked. It's real. I get another one when the job's done. But I can't spend a bar of ylirium here without people noticing, and you can't break something like that without having everyone take notice."
"By the Zeare's Guard", Haran said, shaking his head, cradling his temples. He'd never imagined so much money. He narrowed his eyes and took the freeagent's face in his hands. He forced her to look up at him.
"You're skipping when this is done, aren't you?"
It wasn't a question.
"I've been an agent for eight years, Haran. What do I have to show for it? Nothing. Look at you. You sold yourself for longer than me and where'd it get you? Paying homage to some fat old Gern, guarding someone else's fortune. I don't want to live in lower town for the rest of my life..."
"...Which will be short", he said, cutting her off.
A frustrated silence settled over them again.
The sticky, suffocating weight of the summer night pressed against her skin. The distant sound of music from the Square, where Terin's teeming populace was liming, became an irresistible pounding in her ears.
She hadn't thought Haran could still have an effect on her. She couldn't bear to have him so close. Without giving him time to react, she pulled Haran's face to hers and kissed him. Their lips met in a hungry embrace, their tongues twined greedily. Her fingers curled through his short hair, exploring the familiar lines of his scalp. He grew dizzy, put one arm out to steady himself; returned her embrace, lost himself for a desperate moment. He groaned, and with a quick push forced her away. Neither moved for moist, humid moment, and then he took her hands in his.
They stood up, each of them trembling. Under her breath Makri mumbled, "If you can spare a few hours, come with me to a place I know. It's quiet. No-one'll ask any questions, or care about your uniform. Or notice. Well be alone." A tingling grew in her loins, spread outward, travelling through her limbs in waves. Her lips almost ached to touch of his. Blood rushed to her face. He stood perfectly still, eyes shut tight against the dark night.
"It's been a long time", she said as she pressed herself close.
He drew a long breath. "Too long", he murmured, voice unsure.
Makri could feel his pulse, quick and hard under the smooth skin of his wrist. She knew him well, even if it had been almost a year since they'd last been together. She could feel his resolve straining against his inner will. He locked eyes with hers, searching for something in her bright amber orbs. She could feel it, deep inside her, she knew it called out to him, too...
But she turned away at the last moment. His mouth twisted into a frown and she felt his anger rising suddenly.
"No, Makri, I'll have nothing to do with it. Find someone else to spend your last days with. If you come to your senses, you know where to find me." He squeezed her hand one last time and marched off solemnly in the direction of the Annex.
More disappointed than she would have thought possible, Makri waited a long while before gathering her clothing and walking the rest of the distance to the Square, eyes unfocused and downcast.
The Square was massive, as big as a hundred country farms. It stretched for three full urban districts. It wasn't properly a square, of course, but was in fact the wide, cleared space between two long avenues running all the way to the Auditorio. It was usually active, but once a month, during the Liming, the whole length of it was crammed with much of Terin's permanent population and many overwhelmed and shocked travellers. Those that weren't packed into the Square would be lounging in the city's big, open central park, the Savannah Round. There, the officially sanctioned and somewhat more reserved festival was taking place.
Musicians and bands hammered, whistled, chimed, hooted, banged and strummed a mad cacophony of tunes, grinding beats, and lively melodies. Each seemed to devour its neighbour, in an attempt to draw admirers. Competition for audiences during the Liming could often make or break a musician's repuation and land prestigious concerts.
The scents of a thousand varieties of food, bubbling, broiling, baking and hanging, all in various states of preparedness, assaulted her already overtaxed senses. Vendors and merchants sold every conceivable produce in an incomprehensible variety of forms from hastily assembled shacks and stalls lining the sides of the Square. Taken together these formed a semi-permanent wall of ramshackle booths, and the areas in between became mazes of temporary streets crammed end to end with people.
The only reason the interior of the Square wasn't totally jammed with vendors was because tables took up whatever space that wasn't continuously occupied by people, which was little enough. Gambling posts collected together like schools of fish, and legitimate as well as doubtful games were being played by people from every class but the most wealthy. Colourful prizes were strung on cords above the games' proprietors. Would-be sorcerers and people of obscure professions offered to tell fortunes with Arikam boards and cups of suspiciously pungent tea. An occasional patrol of Public Peacekeepers muscled their way through the crowd, their jagged obsidian swords prominently displayed.
No sane Soldier or Zeare's agent would dare try to bring order to the Square during the Liming. If violence broke out, and it rarely did, the revellers would deal with it swiftly enough, using their own more direct form of justice. Soon, anyway, Juva would start, and any single men and women that remained would pair off and find a place to stay for the night, the only night of the month when innkeepers threw open their doors. Indeed, most of them were busy themselves. Along with the suffocating humidity and heat, normally the effect of this barely controlled madness would be irresistibly intoxicating, and Makri had only reached the edge of the Square. But she felt numbed.
By the time she'd reached Tunar's Fried SeaGreens, no fewer than eight hopefuls had propositioned her. Several of them were quite drunk, and one or two might have caught her attention any other night. The last was only barely a man, and a full head shorter than Makri. She ruffled his hair and sent him on his way. He'd seemed gravely insulted. She hoped his young honour wasn't badly bruised.
Tunar was happy to see her. "Makri!", the wide, broad-shouldered, grey-haired man shouted as she approached, "And here I was thinking you'd be off by now. Many people've been by, asking after you."
She forced a smile for her old friend. "No, Tunar, no such luck."
An elegant older woman dressed in an expensive sarong, whose sharp brown face Makri vaguely recognized from somewhere or other, stepped up and touched her arm. The fine-featured woman smiled suggestively, and gave her a furtive sideways glance.
Makri considered it. Not up to it. "No, I'm not in the mood tonight, Miss, um, but thank-you. Maybe next month." The woman bowed respectfully and worldessly withdrew, dancing away to the rhythm of one of the countless songs in the Square's exuberant cacophony. For the life of her, Makri couldn't remember the woman's name. For all she knew, the woman might have been a former employer.
"What would be eating, Makri? For you, anything."
Tunar nudged his wife, who was stirring the pot of soup. The wizened cook looked up and laughed. "Just you remember that Tunar is busy tonight, Makri."
"Well, I'll leave him to you, Syra. That is, if you can handle so much man. I hear many stories about you, Tunar."
Tunar guffawed. "Yes, well, that might be so, if it weren't for my poor ol' back. What'll you have? Tonight, I think our best salmon and seagreens. Tell me your troubles, Makri. At your age, you should be gettin' ready for Juva, not talking to old men and wearing such a serious face."
She took the plate of food he offered and reached for her purse. Tunar waved his hand dismissively. He leaned close and mumbled, "Makri, I hear you've found employment."
"Of a sort."
"Not all I hear is good. I would know what troubles you."
But a sudden rush of customers interrupted their conversation. As he dealt with them, Makri finished her food and thanked Syra.
She didn't need any more criticism. Before Tunar could return, she pushed through the crowds and started the journey home, grim and depressed.
So she would spend the night alone.
If she was very lucky, she might even get some sleep.
The two porters finally left the wine in the cellar, after lingering in the cool darkness for far longer than they should. The trap door slammed shut and a bolt snapped into place.
Soon there was the sound of scratching, as if an army of mice were assaulting one of the coarse pottery storage vessels. There was no shortage of vermin in the Pag's storeroom, but no mouse could have overturned the winecask. It jerked to one side, rolled to the other side of the chamber and settled into inanimacy once again.
Silence returned to the dark basement.
Without warning, the lid of the vessel popped open, and a figure emerged. "Aagh!", it moaned softly, banging its head on the low ceiling. It peeled off a layer of wrapping designed to absorb the not unpleasant odour of the immensely expensive imported wine that until recently filled the container. Makri had been loathe to dump it into the city drains, but the bound and gagged wineseller's apprentice would quickly be discovered, and she certainly couldn't do this drunk. Thankfully, at least, the cask had been delivered to the right place.
Stooping, she hunted in the pitch blackness for the ladder and trap door leading out of the cellar. It was bolted shut from the outside.
She cursed, and waited.
Over an hour passed.
The serving girl was halfway down the ladder before she saw Makri poised and ready. She sucked in breath to scream; Makri's hand lashed out like a snake's strike, and the girl thudded to the ground. Makri slipped the mauve Clan sash from the girl's shoulder, pinned it to her own robe, then bound the girl's hands and feet and put her just out of sight.
Climbing out of the cellar and bolting the door, she found herself in the kitchens. A half-filled jug of wine sat on a tray with several cups, waiting to be brought to one of the Pags, perhaps even the Gern himself. Makri examined herself in the reflection of the exquisite cylindrical silver winejug, making sure there were no wine stains on her linen servant's costume. After she had verified this and pulled back her hair, she picked up the tray and walked down the adjoining hallway.
She stopped. A guard, a vicious-looking Yarakheen mercenary wearing captain's feathers, turned a corner and saw her. He frowned. She looked down, casting her eyes aside in the manner of a bondservant. He stepped toward her.
"You. Your name?" His Terini was broken, but she could understand him well enough despite his accent.
"Yemenarina," Makri said, trying to sound sufficiently humble.
"You are newly employed?"
She nodded, not raising her eyes.
He grunted, still suspicious. Surely, there were enough house-staff in an estate this big for her to pass cursory inspection?
"You are very beautiful, Yamanari." He looked her up and down. He stepped forward and lifted the wine jug, sniffing the contents. He grinned, and his sharpened teeth were bared. His breath was foul.
Wonderful. This Yarakheen animal must be used to taking advantage of all the terrified serving women. Just her luck, Makri thought, that she had to encounter him and not one more interested in the serving boys. Ah yes, she remembered, the Yarakheen didn't tolerate such proclivities. Well, there was recourse.
Makri smiled alluringly and looked finally into his eyes. They radiated more rank boredom and thoughtless lust than suspicion. She set down her tray and bowed, making sure she displayed herself as she kneeled.
"Thank-you", she mumbled.
The guard grunted and stepped closer.
"I do not know you. Yet."
He raised his hand to touch her hair.
Without warning, her knee slammed into his groin. As he doubled over she landed a powerful blow to his gut. He fell to the ground, shocked, gasping for air. Makri pulled out his long obsidian dagger and slammed the hilt against his head. He moaned and, with a sad grunt, went limp.
That had almost been too easy, Makri thought with some amusement. She glanced quickly down the hallway and dragged the huge, muscle-bound body back to the kitchen. She dumped it unceremoniously into the cellar. It landed with a thud.
She had no idea of the layout of the house. She guessed that the Gern's office should be near the front of the building, where the reception rooms would be. Someone was surely expecting the wine on her tray, and would come looking for it. She had to find the office, and soon.
Makri stood on the edge of the doorway and lifted the thick curtain so she could see and hear the people in the room more easily. The Gern was talking to another man, who she assumed was the Second Husband. He wore a long, polished sword of Yarakheen design, sharp and deadly and made of solid metal. It was three times the length of any soldier's dagger she'd ever seen, and probably worth more than all the money she'd ever made before this contract. She found it hard to believe that he'd actually use it, considering its value, though she hoped she wouldn't find out.
Makri had heard tales of this man, called Minar. After the Zeare herself, he was probably the most feared person in Terin, perhaps even in the whole League. His reputation for ruthlessness and ferocity was matched only by Gern Pag's legendary guile.
Gern Pag was a rotund, small-eyed man. He spent most of his days in his office managing the financial affairs of his clan, only occasionally venturing outdoors to trade receipts at the Plenarium. He'd been born into clan Lim, but he'd left that noble but small family to marry wealth and find a more suitable venue for the use of his exceptional skills. In the last forty years, he'd amassed such fortune and influence for the Pag that the clan's Matriarch was willing to tolerate his methods and occupy herself with more mundane tasks.
It was this sharp-dealing Gern that finally opened the Silk trade with Yarak Kythraxus, albeit through clandestine means. Terin's Clans were richer for it and very appreciative. Gern Pag was well-respected among the other merchant Clans, if not actually loved, and any aspiring Gern, or agent for that matter, who crossed him certainly learned respect for the man soon enough. And it usually proved an immensely expensive lesson. Not a few Gerns had seen their Clans crumble after losing their trade, favours and land. He seemed to have far too much dealing with the Yarakheen and their Tyrant than Makri thought healthy, but she wasn't the Zeare, to worry about such things.
Gern Pag was pacing, his right hand stroking his chin, his mind lost in thought. They were discussing something serious, indeed, because Minar's hand was nervously toying with his sword-hilt, and he seemed openly distressed.
She could hear the Gern's commanding voice. "I tell you, Second, the Zeare is trying to unseat us," he said. "She wants us off the Tilarium. And she has the support of the Judges."
"Yes, but we have the support of Terin's Clans," Minar countered. "She can't move against us without making enemies of every Great Clan in the city, and..."
The Gern interrupted. "That, that, Minar is exactly what she means to do. She has control of the Tilarium for the moment. She's promised to expand the League. It would further reduce our influence in the Tilarium if there were more seats. Remember, each city has only one seat, and even if we control Terin's, already we're outvoted. We can count only on Krynn's support, because the city's Electors...", he paused to grin, ..."owe us a Favour." His hand went up to his neck absent-mindedly, fingering one of the tokens he wore.
"Yes. That gives her six to our two. Just barely enough to carry amendments to the Charter. It's a potent weapon, I'll give you, it's true."
"Precisely. And Terini Judges have civic authority in name only, they've sold out completely to the old woman. And soon, my agents tell me, new rules for the Electors, so she'll ensure the Judges' loyalties. She's drawing the strings ever tighter around us, Minar. We must make our bid to the Tyrant in distant Kythraxus now or abandon any chance of future action." His brows furrowed. "I did not think to see us come to this. So I've decided." The Gern paused for a long moment, and sighed. "You can contact the Yarakheen agent here," he finished, handing a piece of torn cloth scroll to the Pag Second.
'The Tyrant has no ships, Gern. Savages and soldiers they may be, but the Yarakheen are no sailors."
"We will hire ships, and have them in Yarak Kythraxus in two months. We need his mercenaries, men with strong swords and soldiers not softened or corrupted by life in Terin and its vulgar decadence. With force, we can threaten the Zeare and control or replace her as we see fit. And we can ignore the Tilarium, finally, and lead the Clans without opposition."
Minar slammed both hands down on Pag's huge desk.
"I say we can't trust the Tyrant. And we still won't have the Judges on our side. In the end, the Clans may not back us. Many of them fear the Zeare. The Charter forbids the shipcaptains from carrying foreign troops, and they'll obey the Charter above all else. And the Matriarch may not approve of these Yarakheen brutes of yours, must I remind you. Will they follow your orders? And what of me? Am I to lead a force of foreign demons?"
The gern smiled paternalistically, dismissing Minar's words with a wave of his hand.
"We can learn much from the way foreigners conduct their affairs. I think you will find that we have grown soft, worrying about Charters and customs, markets and Judges. The League Clans don't understand the nature of power. In other parts of the world, swords rule, not Judges and tradelaws. The Zeare fights for control of the Tilarium because she lacks imagination. She's archaic, like this League and its Charter. And, in any case, these are my concerns, not yours,... Second Husband."
Gern Pag crossed his arms over his ample chest.
Minar was quiet for a moment, fingering his sword-hilt, and then nodded his head.
"Mm. Just don't make any mistakes. This House will pay the price for your adventures."
"You've profited by my leadership, Second. If I were to collect on what you owed me, you'd be thrown out of this house. And remember that I leave our wife to you without complaint. Do you wish to protest?"
"So be it."
Makri listened intently for more than two hours as the two made plans. She had a feeling of foreboding, a sense of sinking deeply into a whirlpool from which there could no longer be any question of escape. This plot had many actors and they were playing games on a scale she could barely comprehend. Her instincts, Haran, even Tunar, had all been right. This was far too big for her. She was no longer a Freeagent; she was a tool, purely and simply, and had sold her freedom, and probably her life, for two bars of ylirium she would never spend. She knew this now with a certainty as sure as the Pag's armoury of metal swords.
If the Pag didn't kill her, then her employer certainly wouldn't let her live after her usefulness was finished. Not with what she knew. Her dreams of a comfortable retirement crumbled as she retreated back into the shadows.
Minar finally left.
After waiting for a while, Makri rang the entrance bell. It tinkled with a pleasant, silvery note.
She parted the thick curtains and entered the room.
"Yes, yes, thank-you, just leave it on the table." He waved her to the serving table on the other side of the room, and returned to his receipts.
Abruptly, he looked up.
"Wait. I didn't call for wine."
Makri's throat constricted. Her palms were sweating.
"Your pardon, sir," she managed, "but the Storeskeeper asked that you try this new wine, so that he might order more or perhaps change dealers, knowing your fine taste, sir."
The Pag looked up. "Well, did he? Let me try it, then."
He didn't seem particularly suspicious of her. He probably never noticed the serving staff. Luck.
"Hmmm...", he said, sipping the wine, then taking a great gulp of it. "The usual Yarak Kythraxus, unavoidably dry from travel, maybe a bit sour and improperly aged. Tell the storeskeeper this is barely acceptable, and next time not to bother me. It was expensive?"
"Yes, sir. The tarrif..."
"Well, not for much longer. You may go."
She bowed and turned to leave the room. Just as she was putting her hand to the thick curtain, she heard the thud of the Pag's head hitting the table.
The magician had said the powder would work for only a few minutes, but would leave the victim none the wiser. She had to find the seal quickly.
She scanned the worktable. It wasn't there. Sifting through receipts and papers piled high, many written in Yarakheen or various unidentifiable Outland scripts, precious moments passed and still she hadn't found it.
Where would he keep the seal? It'd be somewhere close at hand yet secure, she reasoned. But where, in this mess?
She opened a series of carefully carved wooden boxes, each of which contained receipts for vast sums. One was from the Grand Domus itself in Arvelia. Makri shook her head; with that, she could found a trading house of her own. In one box she found a seal, but it was the secondary seal, for domestic use only.
"Damn!", she cursed, and braced herself against a chest of drawers. It had to be here. Somewhere. She cursed the Gern's sleeping form. Where would the old Pag keep it?
Of course. She stepped behind the table and searched the Gern's clothing. He wore several immensely expensive tokens around his neck, each for return favours from the most powerful clans in the League, and jewelery that could buy her lifetime labour rights several times over. She resisted the temptation to steal them. Makri was an agent, not a thief. And he would surely notice them missing.
Her time was almost up, and still she couldn't find the seal. Perhaps she'd been wrong. Maybe it would be kept in a different room, or in a much more secure area. Maybe they didn't trust the staff.
As she tied the Pag's robe closed over his chest, his arm flopped uselessly to his side.
And the seal dropped from his hand to the table.
"The Elements!", Makri half-whispered, half-shouted, and finished her job as quickly as she could.
The sly bastard would awaken soon and have no idea what had happened, Makri thought, amused despite herself.
Another shout, and a third guard rounded the corner ahead of her. He drew his sword and advanced. Makri glanced behind her to make sure the others weren't here yet. She drew her murat, its twin metal balls dangling from either end of a strong leather cord. The guard slowed, and grinned.
"Boring day. I will kill you slowly, thief."
Makri turned back and smiled.
He started to move towards her again, tossing the sword from hand to hand, swinging it above his head, trying to intimidate her.
Be intimidated later, Makri told herself. Just drop this animal and get out.
He screamed and lunged forward, closing the distance between them. Without warning, Makri let her murat fly. The guard, evidently unfamiliar with the weapon, balked in surprise for a fatal instant. The murat smashed into him. The spiked balls whipped around his neck and the man dropped his sword. Both hands went up to his throat, but it was too late; Makri was already there. She planted the guard's knife firmly in his belly and, with a casual nod, wiped her hands on his robe as she pulled away.
With a last look of astonishment, the guard gurgled and fell forward.
There was more shouting behind her. After the guard's battle-cry this tunnel would be smothered with soldiers soon enough, and there was nowhere to hide the body.
An arrow skidded across the stone floor just by her foot. She glanced behind her. The two guards who'd first chased her were there already, and one of them was cocking another arrow. At this range, the bolt from the massive bow would go right through her.
There was absolutely no cover anywhere.
She fled down the hallway blindly.
Makri just made it around the far end of the tunnel when an arrow shattered against the stone wall right where she'd been. Looking ahead, she saw two doors set into the torchlit tunnel. One was partially open, and led up into the maze of servant's quarters, and the other was closed.
She pulled the first door open all the way. She tried the second door; it was open, and she quickly slipped inside and pushed it shut behind her. Drawing the guard's obsidian knife, she waited on the other side.
From the other side of the door, she heard footsteps, thundering, growing louder and louder... and then fading as they ran on past. Makri sighed in relief. They'd fallen for her trick, running up to the servant's quarters. There were enough of them that they'd have to search the entire servant's complex, looking for someone who matched her description.
Makri gingerly opened the door and took the torch from the hallway wall. Retreating back into the room again, she surveyed it.
It was small, with a low ceiling. The sides were piled high with weapons of limitless description, from shiny metal swords to whole shields made of some kind of sunlight-coloured metal, not gold, that she'd never seen before. Crossbows, bows, arrows and even sacks of magic powder were arranged neatly in rows. The stories about Gern Pag's armoury were true. But what was all this for? An entire band of soldiers could be equipped with the weapons in here, and not even the Zeare's enforcers would be able to stand up to them. Not with all these metal weapons. And entire shields made of metal.
There was only one door into the room. And she definitely couldn't use it to escape.
This was it, she thought; she was going to die. Or worse, she was a prisoner of Gern Pag. So much for her fortune.
She scanned the room. There was no way out.
There was shouting from somewhere above, and Makri knew they'd search her hiding place soon. "No point making it easy for them", she mumbled to herself.
She went to a corner of the room and moved a crate so she could hide behind it. She settled in, made sure the space was big enough, and then got up to put out the torch. As she was getting up, several rats scuttled away from her corner and made for the centre of the room. Startled for a moment, her eyes reflexively followed their movement. Rats. There were probably thousands of them down here.
They scurried to a grate in the middle of the room and disappeared down into a hole.
Makri set down the torch and tried to lift the wooden grate covering the opening. It wouldn't budge. It was ancient. It seemed rotted into the stone itself. Glancing about, she found some rope and set up a makeshift pulley, using a hook set into the ceiling. She pulled with all her weight.
After a few desperate minutes, the grate creaked and came free, sending bits of rotting wood everywhere. She swept the remains into the pipe, coiled the rope and replaced it, and thrust the torch into the foetid opening.
The sides were dry, but somewhere down in the darkness was definitely the sound of moving water. There was a foul odour, and the squeal of disturbed vermin.
She considered her options and decided to brave the rats.
The opening was barely wide enough for her to squeeze through, so she ripped off her servant's robe and dumped it down the hole. Of course, she'd need it when she came out, she thought. "Just don't run off with it, you bastards," she mumbled to the rats.
As she dropped feet-first into the orifice, she closed her eyes and hoped the bottom wasn't far. She held the torch carefully above her. Pulling the grate closed, Makri slowly wiggled down the narrow passage.
After about two metres, the passage dumped her into a small square-shaped tunnel with a crudely arched roof. There was an ankle-deep trickle of rancid water running through a small channel in the centre of the tunnel. The air was rank and stale, with an overpowering stench of decay and rot. It was cool, but the humidity and pervasive moisture made the foul air clingy, and it seemed to adhere to her skin.
She had to kneel, but Makri found she could make her way easily enough. Every now and again, another tunnel branching off to the right or left, and sometimes above, would break the monotony of stone walls all around her. The light from her torch sent rats and other mercifully unidentified pests scurrying away.
"The Elements", she whispered to herself. "These tunnels go everywhere." She kicked at a rat brave enough to investigate her feet.
In shock, she realized that these ancient tunnels must run throughout the entire Old City, under every estate, every market, every house, and probably even the Citadel. The city had an abandoned sewage system. She'd never heard tell of it. She only knew about the "rivers", open sewers draining the city into the lower port. It was her guess, from the condition of the tunnel, that no-one else knew about these passages, either.
She grinned broadly, and made in the general direction of the port.
After a week had passed she met with her contact in the prearranged place. It was a greasy tavern in the Dinges, whose patrons were loud and obviously seldom visited the baths. It was exactly the sort of place from which she knew she'd not likely leave alive, and where there were never any witnesses.
He was dressed in a dark grey robe, without identification of clan, status or occupation. The man was too self-assured and confident to be anything but someone familiar with power, and this at least gave him away. She strode up to his table.
"I knew you'd do it. I was told you were the best in the city."
"Well, then, I have something here for you."
He lifted a pouch bound with twine. "The other half of your payment is here, along with a bonus. You may open it if you wish to verify its contents, though I wouldn't suggest doing it here." A liquid smile spread slowly across his pale face.
"Thirty uncut gold coin. For seeing to it that none were informed of your mission, and for having carried it out without being discovered."
Thirty gold coin-- and uncut, at that-- was many times the worth of this tavern, she thought, and unlike ylirium, she could spend gold anywhere. But she knew very well that it was also, conveniently, exactly twice the going rate for daylight assasinations.
"Most generous of your employers."
"It's also for your continued secrecy. As you won't be able to use the fame of this exploit to further your career, you require compensation above the agreed price."
"Again, very generous."
"I'll convey your gratitude to my employer. Now, I assume you have the replica?"
Makri took out a cloth parcel. She unwrapped it, revealing a shiny new seal. She lit a candle, waited for the mixture of oil and fat to heat, and poured the hot liquid onto a piece of linen which the man offered. She pressed the seal against it, and when she pulled it away, the official Clan Pag mark was clearly visible. It was indistinguishable from the original.
"Perfect. My employers will be very pleased."
He stowed the seal in the folds of his robe.
"And now, agent, I'll also need the imprint."
Makri lifted a second object from the parcel. It was a thin wooden box. Opening it, she produced a rectangle of beeswax, with the Pag's seal cleanly embossed on its surface.
The man nodded.
Makri eyed the pouch of money. "Perhaps you might have other jobs that need doing?", Makri asked.
"No. Despite your remarkable performance, my employers were adamant that you should have absolutely no further contact."
Read, Makri thought, that her usefulness was finished.
"And I must ask that you wait before following me out of the tavern. I don't want to be seen with you." His voice carried a tone of smugness. Makri seriously doubted if the bastard thought she was going to live for very long.
But Makri had other plans.
The man moved to replace the beeswax square in its box. "Wait", Makri said, grinning. "I suggest you examine the other side."
He shot a questioning glance at her. Turning it, he gasped.
"By the elements, this is impossible! It couldn't have been done!"
"No, my mysterious friend. Not impossible, just extremely difficult. I suggest that you take that back to your employer. Tell the old woman that your information was correct, that I am, in fact, the best agent in Terin, and perhaps in the whole League. Say that if I should have an accident..." She produced a second seal, its ceramic as shiny and new as the one she'd just handed him.
"And also mention that I appreciate generosity, and would be most pleased to accept five more bars of ylirium and three hundred more of her generous uncut gold coin. By tomorrow. Here's where I want them left. Oh, and remind her that I have many, many good friends." She patted the seal, as if to demonstrate.
"And one last thing. Tell her that I have information about enemies of the Charter and the League that she might wish to buy, foreign and domestic, and that I might be willing to sell that information at a fair price. Tell her I'll trade for silk, or Yarakheen wine this time, as I think I grow tired of her ylirium. She'll know the worth of my offer."
The contact was silent and pale, and significantly less smug.
"Good day, then, sir."
Triumphant, Makri rose and started towards the door.
"Um, Freeagent," the man said as he grabbed her sleeve, "perhaps you shouldn't leave by the front entrance. It might be dangerous, the dinges are dangerous to those who travel alone. Mm."
She feigned surprise. "Oh, why, perhaps you're right. Why don't I leave with you? Surely nothing will happen to us if we're together."
Back outside in the stifling, sticky heat of a Terin summer's late afternoon, Makri enjoyed her leisurely walk home to the Annex. She touched the perfect copy of the Zeare's seal she wore around her neck. She thought fondly of its many cousins, and of a very comfortable retirement in an innocent, naive and distant outland town.
Craig Urquhart is a technical writer from Toronto, Canada. He studied North American archaeology and linguistics in university, and loves politics and history. He's a big admirer of the work of Noam Chomsky and the political philosopher John Ralston Saul. In his spare time, he writes restaurant and movie reviews, stories, travel pieces and other baubles. Visit him at his website: www.interlog.com/~gilgames
Craig can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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