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“Sejo Zakal! Forgive my intrusion,” the third-ranked female called out even as she hurried onto the balcony overlooking the mining pits. “There is a stranger at the mining village, and he is asking questions about us. I thought you should know.”
“Daro Taikat.” Annoyed but schooling her muscles to conceal it, the leader of Medjant Kumon, lowered the book she had been reading and tapped the armrest of her chair with a sharp-manicured nail. “I do not need to know about every stranger that comes to this water-forsaken hellpit.”
“I am aware, wise Sejo,” Taikat Kurukan apologized,. The trader moved up to where she could be seen by her House leader and bowed. clasping her hands in front of her and keeping her gaze low in the presence of her first-ranked cousin. Her burgundy eyes flicked nervously to the still-tapping fingernail, and she tucked a stray strand of orange hair behind one rounded ear. “I would not consider it important, but for three things. The first is how this stranger is not like any other human I have seen on this world, and the season is high summer. The second stems from the villagers gossiping at how and why anyone would travel when water is so scarce and heat in such abundance. The third regards all the questions he is asking about us, including what sort of contracts and their conditions the village leadership has sworn.
That brownish red finger stilled. Zakal, executive officer of the medjant plumbing this world’s riches, thought carefully. These primitive humans barely knew how to make iron and bronze. They were still struggling with the rudiments of farming and herding. They did not have any sort of culture sophisticated enough to question the exact conditions of a contract. Or so she and her fellow Efrijt had thought.
Rather than punishing her cousin for what could have been a trivial interruption, Zakal asked, “What does this stranger look like?”
“He stands a full head taller than the tallest human, and almost a head taller than myself, I think. I did not get close. His hair is black, long, and braided, his eyes dark like coal, his skin brown like oiled wood, but he has many colorful tattoos inked across it. They lie under the skin, but show through the pigments browning it, with less muting than one would think. His clothes are primitive leathers and fibers, but he has two sheathed blades that are like nothing these primitives can make.
“He has some sort of black enamel or laquer for their sheaths,” the daro-ranked woman continued, gesturing, “and a pale gold metal that is neither bronze nor gold for the pommel-nut and crosspieces. The blades are slender and curved slightly and the crosspieces are circular; if I were to guess, I’d say the blades were more useful for slicing than stabbing, but they could have sharpened tips. The stranger wears them with the unconscious ease of someone long used to maneuvering through crowds with weapons hung at his hips. The length looked to be about a woman’s arm, not a man’s.”
Zakal eyed her own arm, clad in deep red and brown silks brocaded in swirling cloud patterns. Estimating the length and its usefulness, she murmured, “A good choice for close quarters or open combat. Was he muscled enough to use them? Does he bear any other weapons? Any signs of magic, or technology?”
“He is muscular, yes, but lean. And he bears bundles in a heavy pack that he wears, but he has not opened the pack, so I do not know what was in it,” Taikat admitted. “The oddest thing about him, Sejo…all of him glows faintly with magic. I regret I am not strong enough in this realm to tell if it is local energies or foreign.”
None of them were very strong in this realm, magically. Each new universe explored and exploited by their race had its own unique rules. Sometimes they differed only in tiny details; sometimes they differed wildly, even improbably. Like that one universe, filled with nothing but edible colloids…
“Where is the stranger now?” Zakal asked her, curious.
“He was still in the village trading place when I slipped away,” Taikat told her cousin. “I think he was planning on moving on, possibly even before the heat of the day ends. That is why I decided to come to you, to see if you wanted a look at him.”
The Sejo’s balcony overlooked the valley where the “crazy rock” was dug, not the “safe valley” where the miners lived. She wanted to keep an eye on the mercury production, and had planned her quarters accordingly. All available magic had first been used to find the nearest sources of cinnabar, the purest source for mercury, then to impress the natives. Third use had been split between mercury production and carving decent living quarters. After four years, she finally had everything just so.
Now a stranger had come, asking questions about contracts. She had provided the three witnesses for her side. These primitive, short-lived humans had provided three for their own side. That much had been handled appropriately. But verbal contracts were such finicky things; the witnesses had to swear in separate testimonials the exact wording of the contract. Her witnesses—all second-ranks in the medjant—possessed trained memories.
She did not know if these primitives did or not. Certainly, they should not be sophisticated enough to ask about the way the contract was made, not just its contents. Tucking a marker into her book, she set it aside and rose. “I will look at him, daro.”
“This way, Sejo,” her cousin said, bowing and backing up the three steps that protocol demanded before she turned.
They moved up out of the balcony and through Zakal’s public receiving room—public to her fellow Efrijt, of course, not to the primitives of this world. They saw far more of Seso Parut, who oversaw the mining operation, than they ever saw of the medjant’s executive officer. Still, that was more than they saw of Sefo Harkut, who oversaw the accounts, and who kept the Veilway linked to their base back home.
Zakal liked the banded colors and striations of the local sandstone. She had not plastered the walls in her personal quarters, though she could have appropriated the funds to do so. Living in austerity encouraged the others to be similarly austere, however, and that was good for the bottom line. Of course, compared to the squalor of the locals, who lived in cramped little huts, these rock-carved quarters were positively palatial.
They had a reception hall, enlarged to the point of grandeur in their primitive little minds, but only modest by Efrijt standards, which the locals were allowed to enter, but not the private quarters of the medjant members. In here, the walls had been carefully transformed with slabs of marble and mosaic tiles. The black panels, interspersed among the white, showed her hands and face moving across the hall, and hints of her clothes, but her ash-black hair faded into invisibility. A plebian color, the locals thought it made her more approachable than Taikat’s glorious orange.
No accounting for taste among primitives. They still think ochre-stained bones stuck through ears and noses make for attractive jewelry.
They approached the sunlit mouth of the hall. Efrijt liked warm climates, but the heat outside felt brutal at this time of year. Stone posts had been raised and draped with leather and cloth to provide walkways in the shade. The trading place had several such pillars and awnings, making for somewhat cramped quarters, but it was worth it to have a gathering place that was cool. “Trading” was something of a misnomer, for that matter; most of what got traded here were requests for help and sharing techniques in making whatever items the villagers needed.
Only one person actually sold anything. Taikat’s trading depot, an alcove leading to a small cave, offered mere trinkets, colorful beads, coils of rope, lengths of the cheapest cloth possible, bricks of soap sold at very cheap prices—a vital commodity, given how infrequently these people bathed—and of course the equipment for mining cinnabar, all of which came out of the workers’ wages. Little bits of snacking food, too, mostly sweets, some spices. The miners slaved away, earned copper and silver ducats for so many units of ore, and traded the coins for the goods the third-rank Efrijt sold.
Zakal rubbed briefly at her brow, remembering how long it had taken these primitives to grasp the concept of a coin-based economy. But they did hoard their little coppers and silvers, and traded with each other for things they needed from the local artisans. Pottery, basketry, leather, meat, food, so on and so forth. The miners got cheap nutrition as a part of their mining efforts, but it was mostly a porridge of grains and meats, and nothing like what they were used to eating, so they still wanted their equivalent of home cooking.
“There he is,” Daro Taikat whispered, and pointed through a gap between the curving columns, toward a heavily shaded part of the valley where several people had gathered to chat.
They lounged on grass and leather mats, stirring the air with palm frond fans woven around bent sticks for frames, and occasionally chuckled in humor at whatever tale was being told. A hint of dirt and sour sweat wafted their way.
Zakal wrinkled her nose at the smells for a moment, then schooled her expression and paced forward, flicking tiny bits of dust off her tunic dress and giving it a subtle tug to make sure she looked her most elegant and imposing. By the time the others noticed her approach, she had every fold in place. Silence fell at her approach, allowing the clack of her bootsoles on the swept stones of the trading place ground to be heard.
Properly trained after four years of civilizing efforts, the humans of the Red Rocks Tribe scrambled to their feet and bowed low to her. The eldest of them, a gray-haired fellow, greeted her aloud. “Taje Sejo.”
Some cultures, Zakal knew, frowned on stacking titles. Either she should be called taje, leader, or she should be called sejo, executive officer. Personally, she liked having all of her authority acknowledged, and smiled just enough to show her pleasure without showing her tusks. These short-toothed humans disliked seeing the somewhat elongated lower canines of an Efrijt. Short-toothed, brown-skinned, brown-haired…very plebian, but one did what one must in the name of commerce.
The newcomer in their midst had his back to her. He alone had not risen, and still rested that back against a large, fully stuffed leather pack. A poncho lay draped over it, the sort of oval with a neckhole used for shielding a body against the desert sun, and keeping it warm against the sometimes chilly nights. The rest of the black-haired stranger sat there clad in a loose, sleeveless tunic and a full, pleated loinskirt, both made from handspun fibers. Plant or animal, she couldn’t tell, other than that it had been dyed a sort of faded nut brown.
In contrast to his dull garments, all down his arms and visible on his calves beneath the lacings of his sandals, she saw the colorful tattoos Taikat had mentioned. Some of the colors looked muted, subdued under his skin. Others stood out, such as the grass green, vermillion red, and charcoal black band circling his right bicep. Blinking at him, she squinted, invoking her awareness of magical energies.
The stranger glowed with it. Something in his pack glowed, too, strong enough that she could sense it through the leather like heat radiating through cloth. It felt different, more golden-pale and delicate, whereas his own energies felt rather earthy, deep, and…unsettling. Very unsettling, for the tattoos formed one source of magic, while his inner core formed another. Three different kinds of magic, yet none of them were the coalesced-spark “anima” of this world. Unsettling.
Catching her frown, the others hissed at the stranger. “Stand up!” “Show respect to the Taje Sejo!” “Don’t sit with your back to her!”
They flapped their hands, too, and one even tugged on the stranger’s arm. The female stopped and dropped her fingers, flushing and mumbling an apology. Still, it got the male to react. Smoothly, he uncurled and rose in smooth spiral, uncrossing his legs so that he swung around to face her. And towered over her, despite the body-length of space between them. He had a lean figure, narrow shoulders compared to any Efrijt male close to his height, a rounded face, and dark eyes that threatened to scoop her off the ground and crush her in a glacially massive dislike.
Despite the thick heat of midafternoon, Zakal shivered under that stare. Intense and cold, his gaze pressed into her like a pick into ice. She shivered again, but tightened her jaw. “You have no greeting?”
The pressure of that disdainful stare did not relent. “The last time I spoke to an Efrijt, he tried to trick me into becoming his slave…and left me to to be tortured to death by demons when I refused.”
Frijsh…he’s speaking in Frijsh… Zakal blinked. How does he know our language? Laws—he must be an outworlder! That thought gave her a foundation to stabilize her shock, and a launching point to go on the attack. “As an outworlder,” she stated, replying in the same tongue since the natives did not need to know what they discussed, “you should know that we Efrijt have already claimed this world.”
“Wrong. This world is under the protection of the Fae Rii,” he countered.
A second shock. Zakal knew of the Fair Traders. The tales of their moralizing smug superiority annoyed her to no end. She frowned at him. “We have been here for four full years—”
“—The Fae Rii came here over forty-five years ago. I know,” the tall, tattooed human added. “I came here with them. You call yourself…House of the Spotted Curling Shell, correct?”
“Medjant Kumon, that is correct,” she agreed warily.
“And your name is…Zakal Kurukan?” he asked, studying her as she might have studied a particularly unpleasant-smelling human. Without much in the way of expression, save for the chilly disdain in that dark gaze.
“Sejo Zakal Kurukan,” she corrected crisply, not liking this human male at all. “If you intend to take my name back to your golden masters, I am a Sejo, a member of the first-rank. Do not forget it, or I shall see you whipped. Now, which whipped dog should I ask about, when I talk of the one who delivered my name and rank to the Fae?”
That word came in the natives’ language, not her own. The others only stirred a little at that; they had already been introduced to him. Zakal still felt a faint prickling along her arms, a visceral reaction to the word, but she merely stared back, and replied in the local tongue. “I am not impressed. Medjant Kumon has laid claim to this world. If the Fae wish to contest it, they can travel to—”
“—It doesn’t work that way, and you know it,” he countered. Someone had briefed him on interdimensional claims. “They have been here longer; they have the far greater claim. They also have the first claim. I have checked every continent of this world. The only Veil-piercing magics have been used around here, and around the heart of the desert, where the Fae pantean has been established.”
“Yet it took you four years to notice us?” Zakal asked, resting her hands on her hips.
That earned her an arched brow, a shift from dislike to sardonicism. “You know as well as I that such things require a certain proximity to detect them. It has been five years since I last came within range of this place. I had intended to bypass this valley and cross the mountains further to the southwest, where I would have had water the whole way, given the season. Instead, I came here to investigate, and found…you. How much have you exploited them?”
“You accuse me of exploitation?” she asked, arching her own brow.
“You’re Efrijt.” His flat reply made some of the other humans frown. “You don’t do anything unless there is an immense profit in it for your kind…and only for your kind.”
Oh, reputation smearing in front of the primitives? Zakal did not like this fellow. She eyed him up and down. “You don’t know how I run things. You haven’t even been here a single day.”
“Then show me. Show me your superiority to your people’s poor reputation,” he told her.
“So you can report it to the Fae?” she countered, eyeing him dubiously.
“Of course,” he said blandly.
Zakal folded her arms across her chest. “And will you report it fairly? You have taken an immense dislike to my people, Stranger. Somehow, I do not think you will be fair in your assessment of us.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “It wasn’t fair for your people to leave me on Shkaulufet’th. But they did so anyway.”
“I haven’t heard of that place,” she told the man calling himself Death. “Just as I haven’t heard of you.”
“Well, it was seventeen hundred years ago,” he allowed. “Give or take a decade or two.”
That narrowed her eyes. “You’re a human. You don’t live that long.”
“I am Death.” Again, a bland-voiced reply delivered with a great deal of weight buried in that dark stare. “I do not die.”
Now that was over the top. Zakal dropped her arms in disgust, disdainful and dismissive of his claim. “I have no interest in showing an exaggerator anything. If the Fae are here, and if they wish to contest our contracts with this tribe, they can come here to view everything in person. Be on your way.”
“Right now, Taje Sejo?” one of the others asked hesitantly. “In the heat of the day? Hospitality does not turn away anyone but an actual enemy in high summer, and he has not harmed anyone.”
“The temperature has started to turn,” she added. “It is no longer the hottest part of day. And will I pay your people to dig the ‘crazy rock’ in this region…I will not tolerate a crazy man filling your heads with crazy talk. You are in my employment. You will be protected from outside disruptions. The stranger will leave, now.”
“Are you going to forbid me from reprovisioning my food and water, first?” Death asked her.
Or rather, Ban said it. Zakal prefered to think of his name as the word-sound itself, rather than the meaning the locals inferred. Eyeing him, she decided even a braggart and exaggerator deserved food and water. Pointing at a spot of sunshine that had worked its way down through the gaps in the awning, she said, “You have until that sun-spot has traveled the width of a palm across the ground, or until it vanishes, whichever comes first.”
“Your generosity knows no bounds,” he retorted, sarcasm rippling in the undercurrents of his voice. Turning, he picked up his belongings, and addressed one of the locals. “Damek, are you ready to move on?”
“I just need to fill my waterskin again,” the shorter male replied. He flicked a wary look her way, no doubt wondering if she would forbid it.
Zakal merely arched her brow again, raked the tattooed stranger’s long, sun-browned body with a final assessing stare, and turned on her heel to walk off. Her cousin followed after a moment, catching up a few moments. “Do you wish for me to keep an eye on the braggart as he leaves the region, Sejo Zakal?”
“That is a wise suggestion, Daro Taikat. See to it. If not yourself, then one of the others,” the executive officer added. “I want someone watching him, even if it’s just from a distance, until he is well out of our terrain. And that other fellow, Damek. I want him brought back for interrogation once he has escorted the stranger away.”
Bowing, Taikat moved off. Zakal returned to the grand reception hall, and moved into the Efrijt-only corridors beyond its ornate walls. She did not return to her own quarters, however. Instead, she visited the quarters of Sefo Harkut Akantu, the financial officer of their medjant. Thankfully, she found him at his desk, using an enchanted tile to examine some of their less important inventory records.
“You wished my attention, Sejo?” the aging but still acute Efrijt asked. Unlike her soot black hair, or her cousin’s bright orange, his hair flowed over his shoulders in a rich, deep auburn. He did not lift his ruby hued gaze, though she knew he was aware of every detail above the half-circle lenses perched in their wire frames on his nose. They were an artifact, enchanted to assist him in his duties.
“I need some information on a stranger visiting us. He claims to have encountered Efrijt on another world,” she told him.
Harkut lifted his gaze at that. “An outworlder? Here?”
“A human, brown skin, dark brown eyes, black hair, lean, but taller than most. Colorful tattoos embedded in his skin,” she described. “He claims to be associated with the Fae Rii, whom he insists arrived here forty-five years ago.”
“Hmm.” Sefo Harkut stared across the room. “Fae… That would explain the ‘golden anima-beings’ which Seso Parut heard mentioned in rumors by the miners. Parut says they call us the ‘vermillion anima-beings,’ so that would explain who the golden ones are. Anything else?”
“Yes, a world…with an odd name…” Zakal cast her mind back over the conversation, found the word, and ran it past her thoughts a couple of times. Finally, she said, “He called it ‘Shkaulufet’th.’ Have you heard of it?”
The Sefo wrinkled his brick-red nose. “It’s one of the Netherhells. One of the few realms where we have to be careful in what contracts are made and signed. Are you certain the stranger said Shkaulufet’th?”
“Fairly certain. He claims one of us abandoned him there. Or did not take him with them, since he refused to sign a contract enslaving him to his rescuers,” she added dryly. “Of course, he also claimed this took place roughly seventeen centuries ago. I’m certain the length of time is an exaggeration.”
“It’ll cost around half dram, possibly three-quarters, to go back through nearly two millenia of archived information. Even with a world-name to help pinpoint a particular incident, it will not be easy.” He eyed her over the tops of his half-moon spectacles. “Are you certain you wish to spend that much mercury?”
Zakal debated a long moment, then shrugged. “He claims to be in the service of the Fae, who live twenty centuries. It is possible he comes from a world where they have figured out how to make someone merely human live that long, or that the Fae found a race they could experiment upon to try to improve their own longevity. Or he could be a liar,” she added wryly, “but the man holds a palpable grudge against our race. If his complaint is legitimate, and if he is favored by the Fae, that could cause us even more problems. He certainly seemed to be aware of our method of operating on primitive worlds where contracts are memorized, not written down.”
“If he came from Shkaulufet’th, he would be aware, though I didn’t know they were birthing the beasts in human form of late,” Harkut murmured. “Still, a full dram of potential prevention is far cheaper to waste than a gallon of reparations.”
“I do not think he was born there, Sefo,” Zakal said, frowning mildly. “But if he was there, and did encountered an Efrijt, I want to know what damage I will have to control, when we contest our claim to these cinnabar mines with those nosy, profitless Fae.”
“A good point. And we are up two extra pints of mercury this month,” Harkut added, tipping his head to acknowledge the windfall of good ores. “I shall draft the query and send payment before the end of the day.”
“Thank you, Sefo. Your information-delving skills are a solid strength for our medjant,” Zakal told him. “It does no good to mine and extract the mercury, if we have no way to network and sell the results, and no way to know and counter what our competitors might be doing.”
“Well, aside from getting drunk on a regular basis, and living forever,” Harkut mused, mouth curving enough to show the tip of one of his tusks. “But we’d run out of the finer things in life, and I have zero interest in being reduced to the lifestyle of a local.”
“Neither do I.” Bowing her head to her fellow first-rank, Zakal left his study.
She as the executive officer had the final say in the big decisions of their corporate trading house. But outside their own exact duties where they reigned supreme, Harkut and Parut were her peers in all other ways. Triumvirates were strong because the other two could act as a check-and-balance against a particular leader. Courtesy was therefore simply good business among equals.