The Problem of the Pilfered Pen
Mary Lou Mendum has rapidly become one of our most popular writers in Sime~Gen(tm) so we're very proud to present The Problem of the Pilfered Pen, one of her mysteries in an ongoing series completely different from the stories of Den&Rital of Clear Springs.
Eskalie and her junct Sime colleagues are the forerunners of the Private Investigators of the Sime~Gen(tm) Universe. This is the first in a series of adventures Eskalie has while working for this PI firm.
Eskalie has taken a personal interest in one of the partners in the Firm she works for, has discovered she likes this work, and has her life and her future pretty well in hand. Then this assignment brings her into contact with a Companion from the nearby Householding, while she herself isn't convinced Gens are people at all. From this point on, every time she hears this Gen's name in connection with a new case, she knows she's in for Trouble.
Mary Lou is currently, (Aug. 1997) working on a another story in this series.
The Problem of the Pilfered Pen
copyright (c) 1995 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
All Rights Reserved -- for permissions, contact email@example.com
"Eight hundred! You are a thief, citizen. The Gen is worth no more than five hundred, and that only if one is feeling charitable."
The speaker, a richly dressed, elderly Sime, was doing his best to look impoverished as he put his withered hands on his hips and glared at the middle-aged sales clerk who was managing the Naifels Genfarm display. Behind him, the walkway was filled with the hustle and bustle of Torman City's famous open-air Gen market, eager Simes swarming through the tents all the way to the Forst Genfarm's ostentatious pavillion on the other side of the square. However, the elderly Sime ignored the chaotic ambient nager in favor of zlinning the clerk, with the concentration which was the hallmark of an experienced bargainer.
"But, Tuib," the sales clerk whined with very realistic helplessness, "I must consider the future. What if the Wild Gens attack again this year?
The Army diverted fully a quarter of the civilian Pen production last summer, and with the Pens empty, Gens like this one were selling for two thousand. How can I let healthy stock go for a quarter of that? No, I could not part with it for less than seven hundred fifty."
His customer's nager flared outrage. From her vantage point nearby, Eskalie Morlin admired the man's technique, and the imagination with which he dismissed the clerk's concerns. But then, it was no surprise that a wealthy jeweler like Mon Ergest knew how to bargain. The man was close enough to need to want the Gen badly, but evidently he didn't want it badly enough to pay more than the absolute minimum, even though the heavy money bag hanging from his belt must hold enough coins to buy the most expensive Gen in the market.
As the exchange grew more heated, a boy detached himself from the throng and wandered closer. He was about eight years old, and his clothing was well-worn, but not particularly dirty. His straw-colored hair was tangled.
He fitted the generic description "boy" so perfectly that it was hard to see him as an individual. Eskalie's own face, figure, and nager were so completely average that most people were unable to recall her name five minutes after an introduction. She had learned recently how useful anonymity could be in some professions.
The boy drifted towards the arguing pair, his child's nager almost undetectable against the chaotic ambient. It could have been by accident that he ended up by the side of the jeweler just as the man took his hands from his hips and began to wave his arms in emphasis.
The boy was good. Even though she was watching closely, Eskalie didn't see him make his move. However, she was more than fast enough to grab him before he could slip back into the crowd.
The boy gave a startled yell as she caught him, and in trying to pull away he bumped into Ergest, who turned on Eskalie with a need-aggravated snarl.
"Peace, Tuib," Eskalie soothed, making a deferential gesture with the handling tentacles of her right arm. The left-arm ones were fully occupied with preventing the escape of the still struggling boy. She had managed to get a good grip on both of his wrists from above, confining his fingers well away from her vulnerable laterals, but only the timely application of her left elbow to his sternum prevented him from trying to gnaw himself free. She wasn't sure that being bitten on her upper arm was much of an improvement, but at least the cloth of her shirt provided some protection. Wincing, she gave the boy a hearty cuff, dislodging his teeth. "Be still, you," she commanded. Somewhat to her surprise, the boy obeyed.
"Eskalie Morrow of Kirlin Security, workin' on contract for the Torman Merchant's Association," she introduced herself to the sales clerk and his aggravated customer. She was careful to speak in the lower class accent that her senior partners, Amsil and Sesfin Kirlin, insisted she use at such times. ("Come on, Eskalie! No one's gonna hire a security guard who talks like a debutante.") With two handling tentacles, she fished her identification out of her shirt pocket and handed it to Ergest.
After inspecting the card closely, the jeweler grudgingly backed down, returning it to her with a barely civil nod. "I hope you have a good reason for causing this unseemly disturbance?" he demanded, open contempt in his nager.
Eskalie took the time to put her identification back in her pocket, then, ignoring a stream of gutter invective, reached inside her prisoner's shirt and pulled out a heavy bag.
"Just your Merchant's Association dues at work, Tuib," she remarked ironically, passing Ergest's money back to him. He stared at the bag a moment, his nager a muddle of confusion. One limp tentacle found the slashed thong on his belt, then he recalled himself and placed the bag safely in the breast pocket of his vest--but not before zlinning it carefully to make sure that every coin was accounted for.
"You should have been there, Amsil," Eskalie chortled two hours later, over a cup of the cut-rate, third harvest trash which passed for trin tea in the tiny front office of Kirlin Security and Investigations. (The back room, which Eskalie shared with Amsil's younger brother Sesfin, his rickety bookshelf packed with a definitive collection of cheap thrillers, and the filing cabinets, made it look spacious in comparison.) To Eskalie, who had been raised on the finest trin blends money could buy, it was obvious that the farmer who grew the stuff didn't bother to sort out the weeds before drying the tea. "Ergest couldn't snub me, not when I'd just saved his precious cash, but it pained him to have to actually speak--and civilly--with a mere security guard."
"That don't surprise me any," Amsil Kirlin remarked, the habitually solemn lines of her homely face softened by the glint of mischief in her dark brown eyes, and a matching sparkle of humor in her nager. "Not after all the time the lorsh spent petitionin' the Torman Merchant's Association to hire Dar guards instead, just 'cause the perverts'll work cheaper!"
"It coulda been worse," Sesfin pointed out from his perch on a wobbly stool near the dirty window. He had the same long face, brown hair, and brown eyes as his sister, but on him they looked a little less like a horse. "If Ergest had known your real last name, the arrogant lorsh woulda turned into a grovelin' leech, and you'd never have gotten rid of him!" He wagged his mobile eyebrows at her in demonstration, nager projecting a ridiculous imitation of a devoted sycophant.
Eskalie shuddered in exaggerated revulsion. "No, thanks. I'm well rid of my illustrious family, and I expect they were just as glad to see the last of me." She sipped her tea, then corrected herself. "Well, in all fairness, my Uncle Rabin has invited me to dinner twice, but then, part of the reason my parents haven't spoken to him in years is that he'll associate with anyone. He even hired Householding Dar to escort the Border Patrol's supply trains last summer."
"Funny you should mention the Heroic Head Honcho of our Eastern border defenses, Eskalie." Amsil put her tea mug aside, and began to shuffle through the perpetually disorganized heap of papers on her desk. "I got here," she pulled a torn envelope from the stack, "a genuine unofficial communication that was delivered this mornin' from the Border Patrol's regional headquarters three miles east of town, by a military courier who neglected to wear her uniform. General Morlin wishes to hire Kirlin Security for a 'confidential investigation', and he wants you assigned to the case."
"What sort of investigation?" Eskalie asked.
Amsil shrugged. "There ain't any specifics here, but when high-class gents like your uncle want things kept quiet, they're usually willin' to settle their accounts promptly, with maybe a bit extra thrown in to sweeten the deal. We'll find out what it's all about soon enough; he'll be by in person this afternoon with the details."
"It all sounds very mysterious." Eskalie took the letter and skimmed it briefly. If her usually forthright uncle was covertly hiring a private investigator, it had to be important, and probably involved secrets that could ruin some very powerful people. And people with that much to lose can get pretty nasty, if they feel threatened.
"It's a job," Amsil pointed out, zlinning her skepticism. "The Gen Market contract helps, but it ain't gonna pay the rent by itself."
"I know." Eskalie sighed, remembering that a mere four months before, she had never worried about money. Of course, she had spent the last four years of her childhood worrying about changeover (or worse, establishment) instead, but that was easy to forget when faced with the struggle to earn enough to pay rent and Pen taxes.
Her parents had expected her to join them in running the family bank. She could have married and spent the rest of her life in comfort, with more than enough money to indulge in the latest fads. This year it was "pet" Gens, she understood, used by their owners to prove that they could afford the ruinous taxes on privately owned Choice Kills kept more than one month. She had to chuckle at the thought of some of her former friends dragging Gens behind them everywhere they went, just like the Householding perverts they despised.
However, she had wanted more adventure than banking would provide. She had left home two days after her changeover and gone as far as her savings had allowed. Unfortunately, her funds had run out more quickly than she had expected. She had managed to work her way to Torman, resigned to asking her barely known, eccentric uncle for help. Instead, she had found Amsil and Sesfin Kirlin, who were willing to hire and train a very young, completely unskilled Sime for a position in their struggling agency.
The two months since had been difficult, but not boring.
Eskalie's attention was caught by a naggingly familiar nager coming up the stairs of the poorly insulated building. For an unsettling moment, the distortions of the intervening walls made it zlin like her father.
However, as the visitor approached it became evident that although the swirly pattern of the nager was very close, the rhythm was subtly different. That meant it was...
"Uncle Rabin!" she identified.
"Make tracks, little brother," Amsil ordered kindly. "He'll want privacy." With a resigned sigh, Sesfin got to his feet. Throwing a saucy wink in
Eskalie's direction, he left, passing their distinguished client on the landing.
"Eskie!" The swirls meshed intimately with her own nager as Rabin Morlin hugged her, carrying with them a wave of affection--and underneath, a persistent worry. "Why haven't you come by to visit more often?" he demanded as he let her go. "You don't have to wait for an invitation, you know."
"My boss has been keeping me busy," Eskalie explained without apology, gesturing towards Amsil with a tentacle. She reseated herself on the stool, leaving the chair for her uncle.
After introductions had been performed, and fresh cups of tea had been provided for all, Amsil suggested that their visitor explain his "confidential investigation".
"I've got the details here," Morlin said, taking a thick stack of papers from a dog-eared envelope and offering it to her, "but the gist of it is pretty simple. Certain unknown individuals in Supply are quietly selling part of the Border Patrol's Gen reserve to the larger Genfarms. They hide the losses under a blizzard of paperwork, and profit twice: from the sales themselves, and from embezzling the money they don't have to spend to feed the Gens. It's been going on for at least three years. When the Wild Gens attacked last summer, we had more than enough kills in the reserve to fight them off--on paper. But you can't kill a piece of paper, so we had to confiscate part of the civilian Gen supply."
"And with the Pens empty, people had to buy their kills on the open market, at double the usual price!" Eskalie finished indignantly. Three months before, she wouldn't have understood how such a purchase could beggar a family. Her parents had certainly never gotten their kills from the public Pen. However, Eskalie had learned to appreciate the services her taxes bought, even though the two government-issue Gens she had killed since leaving home were far inferior to the captured Wild Gen her parents had provided for her First Kill.
"Exactly," Morlin agreed, his nager reflecting the same anger. He took a sip of his tea, grimaced in surprise at the taste, and set the mug down quickly. "Taking civilian Gens was very unpopular. There were riots, and some people were desperate enough to raid Pen shipments and Householdings for the Gens they couldn't afford to buy. I don't want that to happen again. The thieves must be caught--and quickly."
"So where's Kirlin Security fit into all this?" Amsil asked, getting back to practical matters.
"I think I've traced one shipment of stolen Gens to the Forst Genfarm," Morlin explained, "but I can't prove it. A government audit is useless; they'll have the books altered. What I require is a trustworthy agent to go in secretly and identify possible shipments of stolen Gens--the young ones the public farms produce, not Wild Gens or breeding stock. I can't trace every Gen that goes through the Forsts' tentacles, but if I can narrow it down to a small number, I've got a good chance to expose the whole conspiracy."
"I like to think my people are good," Amsil said skeptically, "but we ain't exactly earned a territory-wide reputation yet, and you've specifically asked for my least experienced agent. I'm sure you got lots of loyal people who'd work much cheaper. Forgive me for bein' blunt, but why us?"
Morlin acknowledged the question with a nod. "The best way to inspect the Forsts' stock would be to pose as a buyer. I've got people I trust working on this, but all of them would be spotted immediately if they tried to impersonate someone who buys Prime Kills privately at a Genfarm."
"He's right, Amsil," Eskalie confirmed. "There aren't that many really wealthy families, and Blorin Forst knows most of them. Even if a good cover identity could be found, she'd spot a fake the instant he used the wrong eating utensil."
"Exactly." Morlin tried a second sip of tea, as if to confirm that it really was as undrinkable as it seemed, then gave up and pushed his mug aside. "I've been following my niece's career with interest, and I believe she can obtain the information I require. Fortunately, her parents were too embarrassed to tell anyone that she ran away to join a detective agency. She can go in as herself, and no one will question it."
"Not looking like this, I can't!" Eskalie pointed out.
Morlin smiled in amusement. "Of course not. I'll see that you get clothing as fashionable as any you'd find in the big cities. I can also borrow suitable horses, and a pet Gen."
"Really?" Eskalie raised an eyebrow. "Where'd you come up with one of those? Last I heard, it was nearly impossible to get one at any price."
"Never you mind where I got him."
"Him?" Eskalie was suddenly less enthusiastic about the Gen. "You want me to take a male Gen to a Genfarm? It'll be chasing every female in sight."
Morlin grinned in private amusement. "I don't think you'll have to worry about that," he reassured her. "Tallin's really very well-behaved, and talented as well. He plays the flute."
"Truly a genius among Gens," Eskalie said, beginning to wonder exactly what she was getting herself into.
"Are you both nuts?" Sesfin demanded later, when the others had explained the General's request. (Kirlin Security's small staff maintained absolute confidentiality with outsiders, but it wasn't prudent to keep secrets from each other.)
The young Sime paced the office's postage-stamp sized floor, his handling tentacles writhing in agitation. "This ain't no simple case of findin' a dishonest office worker, or documentin' a love affair gone sour," he insisted. "There's some things common folks shouldn't meddle in, and battles between the government and Genfarm owners are high on the list! Amsil, how could you even think of sayin' yes to somethin' like this?"He stopped pacing to glare accusingly at his sister.
"Can't afford to say no," Amsil said, tapping the tea-stained ledger in which she kept the agency's accounts. "Little brother, I know you're sweet on Eskalie, and I think it's great, but there's a time to be practical. This agency ain't pullin' in enough work to cover the rent and Pen privileges for three. Last month, I had to dip into our savings, and we ain't got enough to do that much longer."
Eskalie couldn't surpress a sharp pang of remorse at the reference to the price her friends were paying for their charity in hiring her.
Amsil gave her a sharp look. "Don't you go feelin' guilty, girl," she scolded gruffly. "I figured you'd pay your way soon enough, and I was right. This one job'll more than repay our investment in your trainin'."
"If she survives it!" Sesfin turned on Eskalie, who gritted her teeth in irritation at the anger he wasn't even trying to control. It was just as well that she hadn't quite hit turnover yet.
"Look, Eskalie," he pleaded, as anxiety was added to his roiling emotions. "I know you're good. You don't have to prove it by walkin' into something like this. Rich folks like the Forsts, they don't take kindly to havin' detectives after 'em, and they got the power to smash you like a mosquito. An' if your uncle's right, and they're stealin' Gens, there's no tellin' what they might do if they catch you! You don't know what them high society lorshes are like."
Suddenly fed up with his overprotectiveness, Eskalie rose to her feet with icy dignity. "I know exactly what 'them high society lorshes' are like,"
she said coldly, deliberately mocking his speech. "I'm one of them. Or had you forgotten that?"
Sesfin radiated dismay, as he finally realized what he had been saying, and to whom. He spluttered, trying to find an acceptable rejoinder, but Eskalie didn't wait to hear it. Instead, she scooped up the papers her uncle had left and retreated in good form to the back office.
Once the door was safely closed behind her, Eskalie sank into her battered desk chair, shaking with reaction. She had worked so hard to blend in, to convince Amsil and Sesfin that she was willing and able to do her share, hoping they would forget that her parents were rich enough to buy the
Territory government--and frequently did so.
And then the instant Sesfin starts to treat me like an equal, I have to throw my blue blood in his face! With one tentacle, she scubbed angrily at a tear which trickled down her cheek. Her vision blurred as she struggled for control, then she gave up and buried her face in her hands, carefully muffling her sobs to preserve her privacy. Amsil had installed extra nageric shielding in the back office, and banished her brother's desk behind it, after one fateful day when her need coincided with Sesfin's purchase of a particularly gripping horror novel. However, the soundproofing was nonexistant.
When Eskalie had cried herself out, she blew her nose on the old dishrag she kept in a drawer for mopping up spilled tea, and arranged her uncle's papers in a neat stack on the center of the desk. She might have spoiled any chance at a real friendship with Sesfin and his sister, but she still owed them--and her uncle--her best professional effort. When she had brought the case to a successful conclusion, and paid her debt to the Kirlins, there would be time to consider whether she had a future with the agency. Bleakly, she picked up the first page and forced herself to read.
She was slogging through the opening paragraph for the fourth time, and it wasn't making any more sense than it had the previous three, when the door opened behind her and Sesfin slipped in, zlinning cautiously to determine whether it was safe to enter.
Immediately overcome with guilt, Eskalie turned. "Oh, Sesfin, I'm so sorry," she burst out, just as he said, "Eskalie, can you ever forgive..."
They both stopped speaking, zlinning each other deeply, and then burst into laughter with the joy of knowing that their friendship was secure enough to withstand their first real argument.
Grinning broadly, Sesfin fished in his shirt pocket and withdrew a small bag of her favorite peppermint drops. He held it out, saying, "What I said 'bout society folks--I didn't mean you."
Eskalie accepted the peace offering, taking one of the green candies. "I know you didn't," she replied. "I shouldn't have taken offense when none was intended." She popped the confection into her mouth, savoring the minty coolness.
"But, Eskalie," Sesfin's nager turned deadly serious, "I wasn't kiddin' 'bout how the rich and powerful treat anyone they catch spyin' on 'em. The pay's high, and Kirlin Security could sure use the cash, but we ain't gonna lose our Pen privileges if we don't get it. Amsil and I, we talked it over, and if you want to tell your uncle he should find someone more suicidal for this adventure, we won't argue none."
Eskalie shook her head slowly, loving her friends for putting her safety above their agency's future, and knowing that she couldn't accept the sacrifice. "I have to do this, Sesfin," she said, "and not just because Kirlin Security is facing bankrupcy if I don't. I've come to know my uncle pretty well, these last two months. He wouldn't ask me to take such a risk if there was anyone else who could pull it off. If I tell him I won't do it, those Gen thieves won't be caught...and if they get too greedy, and the Wild Gens attack again this summer, the whole Pen system could collapse, and the Territory government with it. Thousands of people would die, or be forced to turn Raider. I couldn't live with that on my conscience. Could you?"
Sesfin shook his head in rueful admiration. "Three and half months past changeover, and you're takin' on responsibility for the entire Territory. I love you for it--but will you forgive me if I worry?"
"Of course I will." Eskalie gently traced the line of his jaw with a handling tentacle. "But only if you'll remember that I'm not completely defenseless. You and Amsil have taught me a lot, and while the Forsts wouldn't hesitate to get rid of Eskalie Morrow, private investigator, they will think twice before harming Eskalie Morlin, banking heiress whose parents who would happily drive them into bankruptcy if their daughter is mistreated."
Sesfin sighed in resignation. "Just be careful," he said, leaning forward to place a not-quite-chaste kiss on her lips. "We've gotten used to havin' you around."
When she finally got back to reading them, Eskalie found that the documents her uncle had provided weren't very helpful. She hadn't done badly in her math classes, but her knowledge of creative accounting practices was strictly limited. She couldn't see through a swindle designed to fool professional auditors. Fortunately, there was a brief summary which covered the major points.
She met her uncle the following night, at a meadow halfway down the road between Torman and the military base. It was isolated by hills from the ambient nager of both communities, and the brook which passed through its middle babbled loudly in the stillness. The General was not alone. "This is my aide, Corporal Peotter Laitu," he introduced the colorless young man at his side. "He worked for Supply until I stole him last summer, and he's been part of my investigation team from the first. Corporal Laitu, this is the detective I told you about, Eskalie..."
"Eskalie Morrow," Eskalie interrupted. If her professional services were being hired, she would use her professional name.
"Eskalie Morrow," the General repeated, with just a touch of amusement. "Corporal, I wanted you to meet her because you'll be helping me get her cover identity together. The fewer people who know about this, the better."
"I'll do my best, sir," Laitu said.
In the following week, Eskalie discovered that Laitu's best was very good indeed. The clothes he found for her were of the best materials, sewn in a simple style which flattered every new curve. They managed to make even her nondescript face seem pretty. The gray saddle mare he provided had a pedigree as long as Eskalie's own, and was so well-trained that it could be guided by the slightest shift of weight. Even the pack mule which was to carry her luggage was a young, sleek animal, as was the gelding for the pet Gen her uncle had arranged to borrow.
Eskalie made other preparations, as well. It would take more than her claim to have seen government-issue Gens on the Forst's farm to convince a court that they were willfully stolen from the military. Hard evidence was required, in the form of doctored accounts and forged bills of sale. She spent an afternoon sitting in a slum tavern with a retired housebreaker, who was more than willing to talk about his craft for the price of a mug or two of porstan. Following his advice, she made a few purchases and secreted them in her luggage. She didn't tell her uncle about them; he was already worried enough.
On the day of her scheduled departure, she dressed carefully in one of her new travelling outfits. The rust-colored fabric of the tunic was trimmed with a dark brown braid which drew attention to the new leather whip wrapped around her waist. After admiring the effect in the cracked mirror which hung crookedly behind the door to the back office, she walked to her uncle's town house to collect the horses and the rest of her baggage.
When her uncle brought the borrowed pet Gen out for her inspection, she knew it was the perfect finishing touch to her disguise. She had never zlinned one like it. Its nager was stronger than a Wild Gen's, but the brilliant core was obscured by a haze of shallower currents. The effect was much like viewing the sun through a heavy fog.
The gray scattered through its short brown hair showed that it was long past the age even prime breeding males were usually retired and killed.
The Gen--Tallin, her uncle had called it--had been dressed for traveling, in a brown tunic belted over tan pants. One large hand rested rather possessively on a wooden case tied to its belt, but that didn't bother Eskalie. From the metallic density inside, the box contained the flute the Gen had been trained to play. She had no desire to fight Tallin for the toy. She knew just enough about good music to know that she had no talent for making it.
A finely crafted metal collar was fastened around the Gen's neck, with a small loop near the keyhole to which a chain could be attached. However, Tallin's owner had neglected to provide such a chain, apparently depending on his or her pet's training to keep it nearby. Eskalie had once lost a puppy that way.
The Gen's anonymous owner was apparently fastidious, as well as wealthy and overly trusting. Tallin had recently been shaved, its hair and nails were neatly trimmed, and the lack of ingrained dirt on its skin showed that it had been bathed far more often than most people would consider necessary. The obvious care which had been lavished on this pet brought up an uncomfortable subject.
"Uncle Rabin, does the person you borrowed that Gen from know what you wanted it for?" she asked hesitantly. "It's got to be worth more than the horses and baggage combined. I know pet Gens are fashionable, but my cover doesn't absolutely require one. What if it gets stolen?"
The General shrugged off her concerns. "There haven't been any reports of Raider ambushes recently, and Tallin here is too easily identified to be worth a thief's time. You shouldn't have any trouble." His eyebrows lowered sternly. "At least not if you are careful. Go in, look at the Gens, and leave. You are not to take any unnecessary risks. Do you understand me?"
"I understand you perfectly," Eskalie said. "Believe me, I have a healthy regard for my own welfare."
"Good." He reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a small money bag. "This should cover your expenses, with enough left over to convince the Forsts you're a serious customer. Go ahead and buy a Gen if it's necessary to maintain your cover; I can always sell it to recover the money."
"Good enough." Eskalie took the bag and placed it carefully in her own shirt pocket, thenturned to the task of getting her small caravan on the road. The horses were already saddled and waiting, and the mule's packs bulged with her new debutante's wardrobe. It remained only to get the Gen over to them and into the saddle--without benefit of leash. Remembering her puppy, Eskalie gave a silent groan of apprehension.
Fortunately, her concern turned out to be misplaced. Tallin followed her over to the gelding and mounted obediently enough. The Gen had been trained to ride; it held the reins properly and its seat seemed secure. When she had mounted her borrowed mare and tied the mule's lead to her saddle, Tallin reined the gelding in behind. Relieved that the valuable Gen showed no interest in independent exploration, Eskalie turned her mount's nose towards the town of Sommerin, and the Forst Genfarm beyond.
Two days later, just as the sun was beginning to slip below the horizon, Eskalie turned the dainty mare onto the long driveway which led to the main buildings of the huge Forst Genfarm. The journey couldn't have been more different than her last cross-territory trip.
Instead of demanding money in advance for a pile of dirty straw on the hearth, last night the innkeeper at the Golden Oaks in Sommerin had taken one look at her and offered a private suite. It was too bad that Eskalie was just a week away from her next kill. The dessert tray would have been worth sampling, if she had had an appetite. Nothing so tasty had been served during her stay at the exclusive Sommerin Academy down the street, where the children of the rich were sent to await changeover. (It was understood that no child at the Academy ever established, although students often disappeared, and their parents would be informed of a "regrettable accident".)
She had worried a little about traveling with a Gen which belonged to another Sime, particularly when she was past turnover. She was all too aware of how easy it would be to fix on such a magnificent Gen. However, outside of a tendency to eat everything in sight, Tallin's manners were as good as the mare's. Not once in the past two days had it raised her intil by flaring anger or fear, and its constant presence seemed to muffle her growing need, even preventing need nightmares when she slept. She was far more comfortable than she had ever been so close to a kill.
On the other hand, she might just be getting used to being Sime.
Still, she found herself wondering where her uncle had managed to find the Gen on such short notice. Someone had spent a lot of time training Tallin and gaining its trust. After experiencing for herself how pleasant it was to have a dependably calm Gen field between her and the nageric chaos of the streets, she couldn't fault its real owner for keeping it around.
After winding past fields cultivated by the Forst breeding Gens, the road ended at an elegant two-story mansion, surrounded by tall shade trees. The bricks in the oldest, central section had mellowed to a bright orange. The antique shape of the windows showed that this part of the building was at least a hundred years old. There had been two wings added since, but the architect had remained true to the original design. Only the different shade of the bricks betrayed their later origin, and that was difficult to see under the lush ivy.
Behind the main house were the outbuildings: a large, clean stable, surrounded by several paddocks holding horseflesh as fancy as Eskalie's mare, a bunkhouse for the hired hands, a cookhouse and laundry by the kitchen gardens, and of course the fortified complex which housed the Genfarm's stock.
The Forsts had received the message she had sent ahead. There was a stablehand waiting to take the horses and mule, and a liveried butler opened the front doors and bowed a welcome before she had finished dismounting. With a wave, the servant directed an underling to take her saddlebags, then he deferentially showed her to an elegant parlor off the main hall. After inviting her to make herself at home, he departed with a promise to inform Blorin Forst of her presence.
Tallin had followed her without prompting. After looking over the room curiously, the Gen settled on a wooden stool next to the well-stocked sideboard along the far wall. Although it was thirsty after the day's long ride, it didn't try to grab any of the refreshments which were temptingly displayed beside it. Still, the thirst was annoying to zlin, so Eskalie poured it a large glass of iced water from the cut glass pitcher.
She wanted something tastier than water, so she served herself a half glass of red wine. The fading light reflected brick-red through the clear liquid when she held it up to the window. She swirled the glass for a moment to release the aroma, then sniffed. There was the fruity scent of well ripened berries, and the sharper vanilla-and-butter tang of the oak barrels in which it had been aged. She raised the glass to her mouth and reverently took a small sip.
Time had removed the tannic bitterness, leaving a strong but perfectly balanced wine. Eskalie was no stranger to good vintages, but even her mother, widely known for the quality of her cellar, would have reserved such a wine for special occasions.
On the other hand, the Forsts reaped a larger profit from each Prime Kill sold here, without the expense of shipping it to market. Shiltpron parlors served oak-aged porstan because it made Simes more vulnerable to nageric manipulation. Wine, with its higher alcohol content, was even better at extracting the vital compounds from the wood. After a glass or two from this bottle, any Sime past turnover would find the offered Gens irresistible. The Forsts probably considered such refreshments a good investment.
Not that Eskalie had any objections, if it gave her the chance to sample such a vintage--in moderation, of course.
She was just finishing her wine when the door to the parlor opened, and an irritating, oily voice exclaimed, "Why, Eskie, what a pleasant surprise! I didn't know you had gone through changeover."
Eskalie had hoped to avoid Yosum Forst, but there he was, large as life and twice as obnoxious. His good looks might have made him very attractive, if it weren't for his personality. He had been the worst bully at the Sommerin Academy. Eskalie was not the only student to cheer when he finally went through changeover and left school to learn the family business.
Now that Eskalie was also an adult Sime, she was able to zlin the insecurity which underlay his smugness. It didn't make him any more pleasant to be around, but it did give her the confidence to remark with calm amusement, "Why, yes, my changeover was nearly three months ago. I'm surprised you hadn't heard."
Since Yosum had always prided himself in knowing everything about everyone, he quickly changed the subject. "Then this will be your fourth kill? I'm sure we can help you find an extra-special Gen worthy of the occasion." He eyed her with more than a trace of insolence. "If you can stay for a few days, we have excellent facilities here for your kill--and afterward. I would be more than happy to move my own kill up a day, if you wish...company." He zlinned her rudely, projecting a crude imitation of the sexual desire he was too far past turnover to feel.
Yosum Forst was the last man with whom Eskalie wanted to share her upcoming sexual awakening. However, before she could disgrace herself by saying so, his uninvited prying was blocked by a wisp of nageric fog.
It was Tallin. Long since finished with its glass of water, the Gen had grown bored. Attracted by their conversation, it had drifted over to Eskalie's side. She used the Gen's welcome calm to regain her composure, then looked Yosum in the eye. "Thank you, but no," she said firmly.
Yosum shrugged. "You can't blame a gentleman for asking," he remarked.
"But you must want to refresh yourself after your journey. Grandmother is working on the accounts in her office, but she sends her greetings and looks forward to meeting you at supper. In the meantime, I'd be happy to show you to your room."
Although Eskalie would dearly have loved a good long look at those accounts, she could hardly say that to Yosum. So she accepted his escort graciously, expressing an interest in the house. As she hoped, this resulted in a tour. By the time Yosum showed her into a spacious second-story chamber in the east wing, Eskalie knew the location of the important rooms.
The guest room was as well-appointed as the parlor. There was a canopied double bed with silk sheets, a beautifully carved wooden dresser, a writing desk with paper and freshly trimmed quills, and a cage with a cot and chamber pot for Tallin. The servants had left a bowl of stew and half a loaf of coarse bread on the floor of the cage. She locked the Gen in and left it to enjoy its meal in peace, while she changed out of her traveling clothes.
When she had put on a clean tunic and slacks, Eskalie slipped out the door, hoping to casually wander by the office on her way to the dining room. There was always the chance that it might be empty and unlocked.
However, Yosum ambushed her before she had gone three steps, latching onto her arm with a loud greeting and many heavy-handed compliments. Away from Tallin's soothing nager, Eskalie found him more irritating than ever.
Wondering how to phrase "no" so that the lorsh would understand, she reluctantly accepted his escort down to the parlor.
There were four Simes chatting over drinks when they arrived. Yosum quickly introduced her to the three men--two of his cousins and a Forst employee. To Eskalie's relief, it wasn't Erin Jormin, the Genfarm's business manager in Tormin. It was unlikely that Jormin would connect a scion of the wealthy Morlin clan with a common security guard, but some Simes had a good memory for nagers, even ones as bland as hers.
Reminding herself to stay as far away from the man as possible, Eskalie let Yosum lead her over to his grandmother.
Blorin Forst was a formidable woman, unusually tall and broad. Her hair was gray with age, but she still had most of her teeth. The shrewd black eyes missed nothing, showing that her mind was as sharp as ever. Her nager was an impenetrable mirror, which reflected the fields around it without revealing any of its own substance. Eskalie reminded herself to be very careful to keep her story straight.
The Forst matriarch sent Yosum off to fetch refreshments, then inspected Eskalie closely from head to heels. "Eskalie Morlin," she said thoughtfully. "You would be Rossil's child, then. Didn't he marry a Vorhan?"
"My mother came from the junior branch of that family, I'm afraid," Eskalie admitted modestly.
Blorin dismissed junior branches with a tentacle wave. "Still, there's good blood there. Don't you have an uncle in the military?"
The older Sime was zlinning Eskalie closely. It was quite possible that the Forsts knew of her uncle's investigation, if not the details. It was nearly impossible to keep a secret in a large organization. If Eskalie were to have a chance at success, she would have to do some fast misdirection.
"Ah, yes, the family black sheep," she said dismissively. "My grandfather never did forgive Uncle Rabin for running away to join the Border Patrol, instead of taking a place in the bank. My father doesn't approve, either. I doubt I saw my uncle more than half a dozen times during my entire childhood."
All of which was the literal truth.
It seemed to convince Blorin, at least for the present. "My grandson tells me that you wish to buy a special Gen this month."
"It will be my fourth kill," Eskalie said.
"Ah." The word spoke volumes. "And have you found a sweetheart yet, to help you celebrate the occasion?"
"No!" Eskalie protested, too quickly, as she felt herself blush. It was true that she and Sesfin had no formal understanding, but he had spent the last two months working his kill cycle into phase with hers.
Blorin raised one knowing eyebrow and changed the subject. "The Gen you brought with you is...unusual," she mentioned. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to sell it? It's a little old, but it could still be used as a breeder for a few years, if we didn't demand too much of it."
"Tallin is not for sale," Eskalie said firmly. "It isn't easy to find a well-trained pet Gen with an interesting nager, and these days you can't be zlinned in public without one."
"I could give you a good deal on a trade. We have three young, healthy Gens that we planned to sell as pets when we finished training them. They are all obedient, with strong nagers and easygoing temperaments. Any of them would make an acceptable pet, and they are females, so you wouldn't have to feed them as much. You could even do a little breeding."
Eskalie smiled politely. "Training and breeding Gens is your area of expertise, not mine. I wouldn't know how to go about it."
"For a Gen like yours, I would trade a partly trained replacement, and a substantial discount on your kill."
Eskalie demurred again.
"Well, think about it, anyway," the older woman said. "I'll have my grandson show you the Gens tomorrow morning. I'd take you over myself, but the government inspector is due next week, and I've got to get the accounts in order."
I'll bet you do, Eskalie thought.
Yosum, who had been sidetracked by his cousins, finally returned with a glass of wine for Eskalie. It was a white, but like the red she had sampled before, it had the distinctive vanilla-butter aroma that came only with aging in oak barrels.
It was an excellent wine. When she complimented Blorin Forst on her cellar, the older Sime offered to send a few bottles up to Eskalie's room. Where I'm sure you hope I'll sample them liberally tomorrow morning, before I zlin your merchandise.
By this time, five more people had arrived: three wholesale Gen dealers, one retailer, and the husband of a well-to-do silk merchant. One more latecomer slipped in just as Eskalie finished her wine. It was Erin Jormin.
Fortunately, the butler chose that moment to announce that supper was served. Blorin Forst immediately began herding everyone towards the door, so Eskalie was able to avoid an introduction to Jormin. By careful maneuvering, she got a seat too far away from him for conversation.
In doing so, she ended up between Yosum and one of his cousins. It wasn't the company she would have chosen. Their conversation alternated between heavy-handed flirting and boasts of their expertise at cards. By the end of the meal, they had arranged a match for the following evening, when there would be a party to honor the thirtieth anniversary of Blorin Forst's changeover. "Everyone worth knowing" for miles around was expected to attend.
This cheered Eskalie immediately. Blorin Forst could hardly work late in the Genfarm's office during a party in her honor, so the coast would be clear for a discreet search of the Genfarm's records. With renewed optimism, she ate her bread and fruit. She wasn't hungry, but only the lower classes neglected proper nutrition.
When the meal was over, she escaped Yosum as quickly as possible, and returned to her room. She sighed with relief as she entered, letting Tallin's clean nager wash away the irritation of the day. The Gen was asleep, exhausted by their journey. She undressed quietly, not wanting to startle it awake, and lay down on the bed. She had intended to spend some time in planning, but Yosum had pouted until she finished the wine he had brought her. It made her very susceptible to the ambient nager, which currently was dominated by the sleeping Gen. Its nager pulsed gently with selyn production, and the hazy fog veiling the brilliant core nager seemed to expand towards her as she zlinned. It blocked out all thought of stolen Gens and double bookkeeping, narrowing her world until there was nothing in it but herself and Tallin. With so much selyn, so near, it was easy to forget need and simply float on the sleeping Gen's nager.
She was asleep in less than five minutes.
She woke abruptly some six hours later, head pounding. As she staggered toward the bathroom in search of fosebine, she cursed her stupidity in drinking the second glass of wine. The day after her oneand only visit to a shiltpron parlor, she had sworn never to overindulge again. There had been no shiltpron last night, but Tallin's nager had a similar tendency to command the ambient, and she had vastly underestimated how much more potent the wine was than porstan. It had certainly never affected her so strongly before her changeover!
She shuddered as she sighted two unopened wine bottles on the dresser, one white and one red. At the moment, she would have preferred even Amsil's brand of trin tea.
The Forsts were used to guests with hangovers; the fosebine was already mixed and waiting. She gulped down a glassful of the grayish potion, followed by two glasses of water to rinse the foul taste out of her mouth.
She staggered back to her bed and sat, cradling her aching head in her hands and tentacles, hoping that it wouldn't split open before the fosebine took effect. When the pain finally eased, she dressed and moved a comfortably padded armchair over to the window. As the first glimmer of sunlight turned the sky pink, she watched the stablehands start their morning routine.
Tallin awoke soon after. The Gen was starving as usual, so Eskalie reminded herself to send a servant up with some food for it as she brushed her hair. After inspecting the stubble which had accumulated on its chin in the past two days, she expanded her mental note to include a bath and a shave. Tallin had proved amenable to being handled, even by strange Simes, so she didn't think it would give the Genfarm's experienced staff any trouble. The Gen's owner was risking enough by loaning it for this venture; the least she could do was make sure it was properly cared for.
Eskalie's hair wasn't long or thick enough for the elaborate hairstyles which were currently in vogue, but she managed to get a passable effect by twisting the mouse-colored strands into a knot, which she secured with an elaborately decorated comb. Glancing in the full-length mirror beside the dresser, she adjusted the tiny dress whip at her belt and nodded briskly in satisfaction. She took a moment to put herself in the character of a customer in search of a Prime Kill, and went down to breakfast.
The Genfarm's staff had long since started their workday, and the only other guests in the dining room were the silk merchant's husband and one of the Gen merchants, a striking woman with long, coal-black hair. They had obviously just taken advantage of the Genfarm's excellent killrooms. They were now negotiating the indulgance of other appetites, oblivious to the presence of others.
This at least spared Eskalie the chore of making polite conversation with them, and left her to eat in peace. A good week past turnover, Eskalie had little appetite for the array of breads and muffins on the dining room's sideboard. However, the trin tea was a marvelous change from Amsil's trash, and she managed a piece of fruit as well.
As she lingered over a second cup, Yosum joined her. "Grandmother asked me to show you the Gens this morning," he said. "They should be finished with their morning feed by now. Shall we go?"
Eskalie wasn't keen on spending the morning in Yosum's company, but obnoxious as he was, he was less dangerous than Erin Jormin. As they walked over to the Gen compound, Eskalie decided to ignore her escort. It was a beautiful morning, and she was about to get the chance to inspect some of the most magnificent Choice Kills in the territory. She had given up all realistic chance of buying such a Gen for her personal use when she ran away from home, but there was nothing to prevent her from enjoying the fantasy of a kill like no other.
In the end, the tour took hours. There were captured Wild Gens, glaring their hatred even as their nagers gibbered in terror. There was the young domestic stock, with greater understanding which gave a enticing tinge of despair to their fear of her. There were breeders, pregnancy distorting their nagers in fascinating ways. ("We don't usually sell them, but for you....") And, of course, Yosum made a point of showing herthe half-trained pet Gens his grandmother had offered in partial trade for Tallin.
These last were a disappointment. Their fields were strong, and reasonably calm, but they lacked the rock-solid steadiness which made Tallin such a dependable bulwark against the ambient. There was something else missing, too, but Eskalie couldn't quite put a tentacle on it. Some mixture of...self-confidence? Caring? Protectiveness? But it was silly to think of a Gen being protective of a Sime.
In fact, the only kind of Gen she wasn't shown was the dull-nagered, listless type produced by the government Pens, although that didn't mean stolen Gens weren't there. After a few weeks without the drugs they were fed to make them easy to handle, even government-bred Gens perked up considerably.
When they had discussed the finer points of every Gen in the Forsts' inventory, Eskalie professed herself unable to choose between them. It was well within the limits of her cover role to feign indecision in hopes of striking a better bargain, and the delay would give her some extra time to look around. Besides, if she had to run for it, the money bag would be much easier to handle than a second Gen.
Yosum was a bit disappointed--hesitant customers were the bane of any merchant's existence--but he escorted her back to her room without too much protest. After inviting her to interrupt him any time she felt ready to decide, and offering to let her reinspect any likely candidates, he left her to prepare for the evening's party.
Eskalie sighed in relief as the door closed, blocking the constant irritation of his nager. She had six days until she hit hard need, but no Sime past turnover could spend a morning inspecting Choice Kills and not raise intil. The jangle of approaching need nibbled at her self-control, urging her towards impulsive action, especially action connected with getting a Gen.
Tallin was watching her from the cage. She unlocked the door and let the Gen out for some exercise. It wandered around for a bit, exploring with mild curiosity. As usual, part of its attention remained on Eskalie. Unfortunately, this time her newly aroused need responded, sending a rush of ronaplin into her lateral sheaths. It had been months since her one Prime Kill, and she was suddenly caught up in an explicit fantasy of Tallin's arms beneath her tentacles, the foggy nager shredding in terror as she reached for its brilliant core.
With a shudder, Eskalie recalled herself to reality. The difference between an honest citizen and a Freeband Raider was that citizens didn't take Gens which belonged to others. The penalties for doing so were necessarily harsh, especially if the offender was unable to buy a satisfactory replacement. Eskalie's salary at Kirlin Security wouldn't cover the price of a pet Gen like Tallin if she saved every coin for a hundred years, and getting fixed on a Gen she couldn't have was the height of stupidity. Disgusted at herself for stealing a Gen, if only in a daydream, she curled up in the armchair by the window, using the dense upholstery to partially shield herself from Tallin's nager. Grimly, she tried to convince her subconscious that she was in no immediate danger of attrition.
It hadn't yet begun to work when Tallin strolled casually over and stood beside her chair, looking out the window with evident interest. One large hand came to rest on the seat back, the muscular arm almost touching the back of her head.
Eskalie held very still, hoping the Gen would lose interest in the view and move away of its own accord, preferably without noticing her high-intil state. Even a pet Gen could be startled into a flare of fear if it felt itself under attack, and that would be a disaster in her current condition.
Despite her best efforts, she couldn't hold herself apart from Tallin's nager when the Gen was so close. It lit the room with an even nageric glow, backed by the reassuring pulse of steady selyn production. It was by far the most interesting thing in her universe. Her visual contact with her surroundings faded and disappeared as she slipped into hyperconsciousness.
If Tallin had tried to withdraw at that moment, either physically or emotionally, Eskalie would have disgraced herself by attacking the Gen then and there, helpless in the face of Sime instinct. As it was, she merely found herself wrapped in a warm nageric cocoon, where need could never find her. Even her unruly subconscious was fooled into believing that the Gen would be there for her when she wanted it, and the knots of need-tension which had grown during the morning began to unravel.
The past three months had taught her not to scorn assistance when it was offered, even from unlikely sources. And what less likely source of assistance is there than this? she thought as she slowly relaxed. When she stopped fighting Tallin's effort, the calming effect intensified, and the room came back into focus as she regained duoconsciousness. She hadn't thought a Gen's nager could block need anxiety so effectively--at least, not without causing her to become fixed on it. However, she felt no uncontrollable obsession that Tallin was the only possible kill for her. She envied the Gen's real owner, who could use its unusual talents every month to avoid much of the unpleasantness of need.
By the time Tallin grew bored with watching the stables and went to look at the wooden paneling on the far wall, Eskalie was feeling almost pre-turnover. With a sigh of relief, she began to prepare for the evening.
Dinner was an elegant affair, with everyone dressed in their finest clothes. This time, Eskalie limited herself to one swallow of wine, when Yosum offered a toast to his grandmother's health. Otherwise, she stuck with trin tea.
Yosum attached himself to her side like a leech as the guests began to arrive, making it clear to the young men that they were not welcome to linger. The lorsh, she thought with disgust. He really thinks I'll turn to him if he runs off the competition. She was hardly the kind of woman who attracted men by her beauty and sparkling conversation. Even Sesfin had been a lot more interested in her as a colleague than a potential lover, at least until he got to know her pretty well. So what does Yosum want? Wealthy in-laws who are willing to pay him to take their homely daughter off their hands? A bank which won't look too closely at any questionable deposits made by the boss's son-in-law?
Whatever Yosum's plans, they would interfere with her own if she didn't get rid of him soon. All of the guests had arrived, and a quick survey of the room showed that Blorin Forst and Yosum's two cousins were well occupied. She was wondering how to win free when she recognized Semma Arslin. Eskalie hadn't seen the woman since her marriage to a noted horse breeder four years before, but her younger sister Helka had been Eskalie's best friend before they were sent off to different schools.
Eskalie dragged Yosum over to the young woman, much to his distress, and soon she and Semma were gossiping merrily about people Yosum didn't know.
He stood it for nearly ten minutes, eyes glazing, before he gave up and left to talk to his cousins.
"Thank you," Eskalie said. "He was being such a nuisance."
Semma winked. "You can do better than that buffoon, dear. Look, he's been drafted for a card game. Run along and find someone interesting."
"I will. Give Helka my love when you see her next." With one more glance to confirm that all the Forsts were occupied, she slipped out through the door.
The ballroom was in the west wing. She quickly made her way to the central section of the building, glad that due to several unfortunate accidents, current etiquette prohibited bringing pet Gens to large gatherings. Tallin was remarkably well behaved, but dragging the Gen along would have made her current task much more complicated.
There was no light shining through the crack under Blorin Forst's office door. She couldn't zlin through the dense ironwood very well, but that was all to the good. Once she managed to get inside, it was unlikely that anyone would zlin her unauthorized presence. She reached into a pocket, pulled out her brand new set of lockpicks (purchased from a friend of her ex-housebreaking aquaintance), and set to work.
The task proved much more difficult than her surreptitious practice sessions had led her to expect. Amsel had a decent lock securing her agency's office, but the door in which it was installed was made of much less dense pine, making it possible to zlin at least a little bit about the lock's structure. The lock on Blorin Forst's door was surrounded by selyn-insulating metal plates, elegantly inscribed with "Zloor's Lock and Key, Sommerin". Since she couldn't zlin through them, she was forced to work entirely by feel.
It took a nerve-wracking ten minutes, but the lock finally yielded. Eskalie quickly slipped inside, where her nager would be largely shielded, and struck a match to light the lamps. The faint light which would escape under the door wouldn't significantly increase her chances of discovery, and reading documents would be much easier if she used her eyes.
The office was a beautiful room, dominated by a huge oak desk which sat in solitary grandeur on the highly polished wood floor. There were no filing cabinets here, only a small bar set against the wood paneling on one wall, and a bookcase with leather-bound volumes on the other.
The one desk drawer which contained paper was locked, and the industrious Zloor had installed metal plates around this lock too, to obscure the mechanism. Although Eskalie would dearly have loved to sort through the documents inside, she couldn't afford the time conquering the lock would require, at least not until she had exhausted the other possibilities. Blorin Forst had been working on the accounts; with any luck, there would be something interesting on top of the desk.
Without wasting time, Eskalie set to work, sifting through the blue-covered ledgers, each embossed in gold with the Forst crest, which were stacked neatly on the desk, searching for the records of incoming Gen shipments. They wouldn't list the true source of any stolen Gens, but Uncle Rabin could check suspect shipments with the sellers of record.
She discarded the Gen breeding records, the household accounts, and the stable records before she found what she wanted. She skimmed over the list of Gen purchases and sales, trying to locate groups of five or more young Gens. There didn't seem to be any, but there were several occasions when a cluster of establishments were recorded, all within a week, and there were too many males in these groups. Just as young males are overrepresented among the Pen shipments, because they keep many of the females for breeding. It was enough; time to leave before she was caught.
As if in answer to the thought, the office door opened, and Erin Jormin confronted her triumphantly.
"So it was you, Miz Private Security Guard," he hissed. "I told Miz Forst you were the spy we were warned about, but Yosum was positive you were his old schoolmate, and she didn't want to interfere with his plans. It's a good thing I decided to track you down when you disappeared from the party. I'll give you this much: you make a very convincing debutante. Anyone would think you grew up in the best society."
"But I did," Eskalie remarked, casually picking up the ledger. "You see, I..." Without warning, she made an augmented leap for the door, swinging the heavy ledger to knock Jormin aside.
It was a good plan, and it almost worked. If Blorin Forst had not insisted on an immaculate workplace, Eskalie would have been able to get past Jormin and through the door. She would have been at the stables and away before he could raise the alarm.
As it was, she was so busy worrying about whether Jarmin could react quickly enough to parry her blow, that she forgot to zlin where she was putting her feet. Her shoes lost traction on the highly polished floor, sending her sprawling ignominiously at his feet. With a growl, he pounced on her. Frantically, Eskalie beat at him with the ledger, but she was at th e wrong angle to get in a solid blow.
It was therefore a great surprise when there was a blinding instant of pain, and Jormin collapsed on top of her, his nager flat with loss of consciousness.
Numb with astonishment, she pushed him off her and looked up at her rescuer. Tallin's formerly calm and placid nager was firm with disciplined determination and purpose. The Gen's eyes showed a disturbing intelligence as it assessed her condition, and its large hands curved competently around the poker with which it had cudgeled Jormin.
"Are you all right?" it asked, in accents as cultivated as her own. Eskalie nodded, rubbing her bruises. "On your feet, then. What about him?" It indicated Jarmin's limp body.
Eskalie and hastily zlinned the unconscious man. "I don't think he's going to die," she reported, "but he'll probably wish he had, at least for the next couple of days."
"Good enough. Let me know if he starts to wake up," the Gen ordered. Eskalie objected in principle to taking orders from an animal, but childhood encounters with the barn cats in her parents' stables had taught her that some flexability was required, at least when the animal in question was equipped with weapons and had the will to use them. She groped for the ledger and sat up slowly, keeping a wary eye on Tallin's poker. Now that it looked like she might survive the next few minutes, she had time to consider some less urgent matters. Like how the Gen had escaped from a locked cage, for instance. Not to mention why, if it were smart enough to do that much, it had been stupid enough to come to her rescue instead of escaping.
The first question was answered as she staggered to her feet. The Gen had set the poker down on the desk, much to Eskalie's relief, and was removing a thick wire from its flute case. It then inserted the wire into the keyhole on the locked desk drawer.
Eskalie was beginning to suspect that her uncle had had an ulterior motive for sending this particular Gen with her.
"Your friend there had no backup, or the alarm would have been raised by now," Tallin explained, delicately teasing the tumblers into place. "We should have a few minutes to finish the job. Ah, that does it." The Gen pulled the drawer open. "Crummy workmanship on that lock. Hardly worth the metal it's hidden behind." It removed a stack of papers and set them beside the poker. "You see if there's anything interesting here, and I'll check the safe."
As Eskalie sorted through the papers, which were mostly letters and receipts, Tallin inspected the bookcase on the far wall. Within moments, the Gen had located a hidden catch, and a section of the bookcase swung aside. Behind it was a heavy ceramic safe of the exact same density as the wall plaster.
A little jealous, she asked, "How...? I couldn't zlin anything back there." Tallin shrugged. "Neither could I, but this section of the bookcase has only cheap novels, not titles related to Genfarming, and they look like they've never been opened. You'd think any self-respecting craftsman designing a fake bookcase would at least try to make it blend in."
This pet Gen, if Eskalie was any judge, had to be one of the most talented burglars in the territory. Equally obviously, her uncle had intended her to be part of Tallin's cover role, not the other way around. No wonder he had been so insistant that she do nothing to call attention to herself! Of course, that left open the question of just what kind of person would train a Gen so carefully in the art of breaking and entering. She wasn't really sure she wanted to know.
Tallin's greying head shook in mock censure as the Gen finished its inspection. "Humm, the safe's only an Insum. No challenge at all. Hand me one of those water glasses, would you?"
Eskalie automatically snagged a glass with two tentacles, and held it out. Even as she did so, she realized her mistake. Most Gens were understandably alarmed by the touch of tentacles, and after the intil she had struggled with a few hours earlier, she didn't dare expose herself to a flare of Gen fear with the strength of Tallin's nager behind it. However, before she could switch the glass to her hand and retract her handling tentacles, the Gen plucked it casually from her grasp with a murmured thanks.
"Quiet now, this part is a little tedious," Tallin warned, placing the glass against the safe near the wheel of the combination lock. The Gen put its ear against the glass and began slowly turning the wheel, listening for the click of tumblers falling into place.
Shaking her head, Eskalie went back to her papers. She could eliminate most of them as innocent after a cursory glance, but there were thirteen letters from a "Plur" in Torman which contained information on military matters. These could be innocent--or they could be a lead to the corrupt officers who were selling off the military Gen reserve for personal profit.
She set the suspect letters aside, then neatly replaced the other papers in the desk drawer. Blorin Forst would miss the ledger soon enough, and Jormin would tell her that Eskalie had taken it, but there was no point in letting the woman know that Eskalie had found anything else.
Tallin got the safe open as she closed the desk drawer. The Gen reached inside a moment, sorting through the contents, then withdrew a red-bound ledger. It laid the book on the desk and flipped through the pages rapidly. Eskalie tried not to stare at the sight of a literate Gen; it was certainly no stranger than Tallin's other talents. "Records of Gens bought and sold," the Gen reported, "and the final entry is for last week. This is current."
"So is mine," Eskalie said, holding up her blue ledger. "Does that one have an entry for an incoming shipment of five males and two females, around a year ago last winter solstice?"
"Let's see." The large hands turned pages, locating the proper section. "No, but there's a note here about four males and two females, brought in a week before the solstice by someone identified only as 'P'."
"Close enough," Eskalie said, putting the letters she had saved inside the ledger for safekeeping. "One of the establishments listed here was probably genuine. This should be enough to stop the Forst's thieving. It's time to leave now, before someone else wanders by."
Tallin handed her the red ledger, which she put with the blue one. The Gen carefully closed the safe, and returned the water glass to the bar where it belonged. Eskalie put away the poker and straightened the desk, until everything looked as it had when she had entered. It seemed a waste of time, with Jormin knowing pretty much what she had been after, but if it slowed the pursuit for even half an hour, it could buy her vital time to get away.
She had put the ledgers under her arm and was heading towards the door when Tallin said, "No, over here." The Gen led the way over to the paneled wall, and pressed on a knothole. The panel swung open, revealing a narrow passage lit by her small traveling lantern.
Noting her astonishment, Tallin shrugged almost apologetically. "I had a look around while you were at dinner yesterday evening, after the fellow there," the Gen nodded towards the still-unconscious Jormin, "used this passage to get into your room without being seen and search your luggage. He's a rank amateur; he didn't even find your lock picks inside the jar of face powder. Still," it continued, "something must have convinced him that you were up to no good, or he wouldn't have been lying in wait for you."
"The Forsts and their minions have always been a suspicious lot," Eskalie explained. "Considering what they've been up to, I can't say I'm surprised."
"In any case, this passage connects with all of the guest rooms on the east wing." The Gen reached down, picked up the lantern, and held it out to her. "There's only one more thing to do here." It returned to kneel by the unconscious Jormin. "We can't afford to have a witness raise the alarm before we're well away."
"Don't murder him!"
"Why would I do a thing like that?" Tallin asked indignantly. "It isn't necessary. All we have to do is make sure that he can't talk to anyone until we've had time to get well away, and that's easy enough." The Gen picked up the unconscious Sime and carried him over to join her.
Eskalie would have stopped it, but by then it was too late. Even if he were returned to where he had fallen, Jormin would suffer psychospatial disorientation--hours of horrifying dizzyness and hallucinations during which, she had to admit, he would be unable to utter a coherant sentence to anyone.
"How could you deliberately do that to someone who never harmed you?" Eskalie demanded, fighting down sympathetic nausea.
"Don't be too sorry for him. He would gladly have murdered you if I hadn't stopped him," the Gen pointed out. "I'll leave him in our room upstairs. With any luck, whoever finds him will assume that he interrupted a housebreaker going through the guest rooms for jewelry and such. If there's enough confusion, Blorin Forst might not even notice her account books are gone until he recovers enough to tell her how he got hurt. That is, if we aren't still here discussing the matter when she comes in tomorrow morning." The Gen's nager showed growing impatience.
Prudently, Eskalie stifled her remaining objections and led the way along the passage, holding the lantern so that the Gen wouldn't trip. They ascended a narrow staircase set at the junction of the central section and the newer east wing, then threaded their way down an even narrower passage which ran alongside several of the guest rooms. Eskalie slowed when they reached her room, and, following Tallin's instructions, found the catch which opened a narrow door. From the opposite side, its outline was well camouflaged by the wooden paneling.
Come to think of it, that's the same section of wall the shendi-flecking Gen was inspecting so carefully this afternoon!
It was humbling to think a pet animal had been ahead of her the whole time. Some detective I am.
"Is there anyone in this wing of the building?" Tallin asked.
Eskalie went over to the door, extending her laterals to get a good reading. "It's clear," she said, stepping into the hall for a moment and zlinning back through the closed door to make sure Jarmin's nager wasn't too obvious. As the Gen arranged its burden artistically, sprawled on the floor next to the dresser, she wrapped her booty in several spare shirts for extra waterproofing and placed the package in one pocket of her saddlebags.
Shortly, Tallin rejoined her, holding up the two bottles of wine from her dresser. "It would be a pity to shun such hospitality," the Gen pointed out, as it tucked the bottles into the other saddlebag and stuffed more clothing around them to hold them in place. "Now, if we take the secret passage back down to the first floor, we can take the turning that leads to the parlor, nip out the front door, circle around to the front of the stables..."
"And walk straight into the middle of the party which the stablehands are throwing for the drivers and grooms who came with tonight's guests,"
Eskalie interrupted, going to the window and throwing it open. "I can zlin about thirty of them from here. No, we'll leave this way, and go in from the back."
The Gen inspected the thick ivy carefully, measuring the distance to the ground. "You might be able to climb down that, but I don't think those stems will hold my weight."
"They won't have to," Eskalie said, fetching the sheets from her bed and knotting them together. When she had added the one from Tallin's cot, the improvised rope reached to within five feet of the ground, even after she tied one end around the nearest bedpost. "Start climbing," she ordered, giving the knot a slightly augmented tug to make sure that it would hold.
Tallin eyed the sheets dubiously, then obediently climbed onto the windowsill. With a nervous glance at the ground fifteen feet below, the Gen grasped the sheets and began walking down the side of the building. Eskalie zlinned its progress anxiously, hoping it wouldn't slip and fall. That would bring every Sime within miles.
However, Tallin reached the ground safely. Eskalie sent the saddlebags down the same way, then pulled her rope up a final time. Untying the sheets, she remade the beds--no reason to advertise how she had gotten away--and climbed easily down the ivy.
Leaving the Gen with its conspicuous nager outside, Eskalie slipped into the stable. She found her mare and Tallin's gelding with little difficulty, but the mule had apparently been turned out to pasture to make room for more valuable animals. Shrugging off the loss, she saddled the two horses and rejoined Tallin. They led the horses straight away from the house until they were out of easy zlinning range, then circled back around to the road. There was a three-quarter moon in the sky, which gave the horses enough light once they left the shelter of the trees.
Mounting, they started down the road towards Sommerin and Torman at a brisk trot.
They pushed the pace for several miles, then continued as long as the light lasted, alternating between long, ground-eating jogs and brief walks to let the horses catch their breath. Eskalie couldn't zlin any pursuit, but that didn't mean there wasn't any. Unless she was lucky enough to zlin a pursuing rider topping the crest, the gently rolling hills could easily hide a single Sime, or even a small group, until they were quite close.
Still, the horses couldn't go on forever. They were fifteen miles from Sommerin when the moon slipped behind the hills. Eskalie had her lantern, but it didn't give enough light to go faster than a walk. It made more sense to give the horses a thorough rest now, so that they could keep going for most of the upcoming day.
They climbed yet another hill, this one a bit higher than most. Just before they reached the crest, Eskalie guided her mare to the side of the road and halted. From here, she could zlin almost a mile back down the road towards the Forst Genfarm, although the hill blocked her ability to zlin travelers coming from the opposite direction. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do.
"We'll rest here for a while," she told Tallin. The Gen nodded in tired agreement and dismounted stiffly. Eskalie could zlin certain aches which made it plain that the Gen was no longer as young as it had been.
Still, it didn't complain. After loosening the gelding's girth and removing the bit from its mouth, so that the beast could graze, Tallin tied hobbles around its front legs to prevent straying. Then the Gen stretched out on the grass by the roadside and went to sleep.
Eskalie tended her own mount, then lit her travel lantern and settled down to keep watch. For two hours, she alternated between zlinning the road and reading through her prizes.
The letters from "Plur" seemed innocent enough, describing the daily life of a horse-mad young soldier. However, when Eskalie compared the red ledger's descriptions of shipments from "P" with the letters dated a week or two before, she saw that the number of mares and fillies, or colts and stallions, described in each letter corresponded to the number of female and male Gens, respectively, that "P" would shortly deliver.
Only the latest letter, dated just over two weeks ago, was not yet connected with a "P" delivery in the red ledger. It read, in part, "I visited Lieutenant Okil's parents yesterday and saw some beautiful horsis. There were two excellent fillies, a chestnut and a reddish bay, but Lt. Okil is pinning his hopes on the mare that won him so much money last year. She has been bred to a fine stud and will foal next winter. There were also five colts which show great promise..."
If the code held true, it would be the most ambitious theft yet. Eskalie thought it a bit ironic that "P" was probably in the process of delivering more stolen Gens to the Forsts, even as she delivered evidence of the crime to Torman.
The letters also contained information on the progress of her uncle's investigation into the previous summer's Gen shortage. It was apparent that there had been a major breach of security.
That in itself would have been alarming, but towards the end of the latest letter was a paragraph which reported that "the kennel owner on Noorin Street who has been so helpful" had offered him the use of her favorite hound, Bear, to dispose of troublesome vermin.
Eskalie had spent enough time in Tormen's seedier districts to know that the only pack to be found on Noorin Street was of the two-legged, tentacled variety. And their ruthless, red-haired leader, Mirta Dulkar, had climbed to her position literally over the bodies of her competitors--thanks to the services of her brother, a man whose Genlike size, weak intellect, and enthusiasm for murder had given him the nickname "Mirta's tame grizzly bear."
Compelled by a new sense of urgency, Eskalie put the ledgers and letters carefully into her saddlebags, then woke Tallin. It was still three hours to dawn, but even at a walk, the horses could cover five or six miles in that time. With an assassin stalking her uncle, the time saved might make the difference.
If it isn't too late already.
Eskalie had attached the lighted lantern to her stirrup, and was waiting for the still-sleepy Gen to unhobble the gelding and get it ready, when a wagon came over the crest of the hill from Sommerin. It was a shabby, mule-drawn transport, with a lackluster group of Gens huddled sleepily in a large cage which took up most of the wagon bed. There were two young females, one slightly older female with a nager just beginning to develop the complex distortions of pregnancy, and five young males. Three scruffy-looking Simes shared the seat in front, two men and a woman.
Eskalie recognized them. Mak and his younger brother Eitan, who was driving, made a living of sorts doing odd transport jobs around the Torman Gen market. To the best of Eskalie's knowledge, though, these jobs were usually limited to bringing Gen food into the market and taking the resulting wastes away. They also hauled the mangled carcasses away from the Fire Palace, one of the most notorious killhouses in Torman. The woman, Zilmor, played shiltpron at the Bear's Cave, and was rumored to be quite talented. Eskalie would have felt better if she had not known that both the Fire Palace and the Cave were owned by Mirta Dulkar.
When he zlinned Eskalie, Mak signaled his brother to halt the wagon. One of the Gens, a young male, failed to grab a cage bar in time and fell to the floor, bruising one arm. Eskalie gasped and braced herself against the flare of intil evoked by its pain. The other three Simes simply gritted their teeth and tried to ignore it. Such accidents were commonplace when Gens had to be moved, and its field wasn't strong enough to bother them too much, since unlike Eskalie they were all pre-turnover.
"Well, if it ain't our favorite hired badge, Dee-tective Morrow! Whatcha doin' here?" Mak asked, "I might ask the same thing," Eskalie replied. "Isn't hauling live Gens a little out of your usual line? Particularly at three in the morning, and with only the three of you to guard them? There are always those who are eager to lay claim to a few extra kills--and not all of them are Freeband Raiders."
"Well, you'd know 'bout that," Eitan said, zlinning Tallin pointedly. "Fer instance, that's some fancy Gen you got there."
"Sure is," Zilmor agreed. "An' I'd wager my tips fer the resta the summer that ya didn't buy it on a thief taker's salary."
"Didn't get th' hoss that way, neither," Eitan said, nager reflecting a growing, almost predatory eagerness. He spat expertly over the side of the wagon. "Wadja say, kid? You stop some rich gal by the side of the road an' liberate her belongin's? Mebbe we should turn ya in; there might be a good ree-ward."
"I hate to disappoint you, but the Gen and horses are not stolen," Eskalie said firmly, letting them zlin the truth from her nager in the hope that it would discourage them.
Zilmor doubled over with genuine laughter. "We s'posed to believe that yer rich uncle loaned 'em to ya?"
Unable to resist the temptation, Eskalie shrugged with as much innocence as she could manage. "As a matter of fact, that's exactly what happened."
"Naw, it ain't," Mak said, unwinding the whip from his waist. "I think yer the one we was s'posed ta pass on a warnin' about. The hotshot in-ves-tee-gater the General hired ta pose as his relly-tive an' spy on the Forst Genfarm. Won't they be surprised when we deliver ya along with the warnin'!"
There was no hesitation or doubt in his nager, and his feral grin reflected his glee at the chance to bring down an authority figure, if only a lowly security guard. Eskalie knew she could never outfight all three of them, which left only one alternative, if she wanted to escape the Forsts' tender mercies. Tallin's gelding was still hobbled at the side of the road, almost parallel to the cage on the back of the wagon. The Gen stood beside its mount, watching events with its usual calm detachment.
With an augmented bound, Eskalie leaped to the mare's saddle, kicking the poor horse from a standstill into a gallop. She gave a loud yell as the mules flashed by her right knee, hoping to spook them and keep Eitan busy, and kneed the mare to make it veer towards the gelding. As she neared the gelding, she pulled the mare to a plunging halt and reached with her left hand, handling tentacles extended, to grab Tallin and pull the Gen onto the saddle in front of her. It was an insane stunt, and she hoped fervently that the mare wouldn't kick and Tallin wouldn't duck at the wrong moment.
However, before she was quite close enough to touch the Gen, Mak's long whip extended with the precision of a Freeband Raider's, looping around the wrist and three handling tentacles of her outstreched hand. He pulled hard, and her arm was nearly dislocated as she flew out of the saddle.
Caught off balance, she could do little to break her fall. By twisting frantically, she managed to take most of the impact on her right shoulder, avoiding a direct hit on her laterals, but she was too stunned to fight as Zilmor bound her arms behind her back with her own belt, the stiff leather digging cruelly into her tentacle sheathes.
"You watch 'er a moment, Zil, whiles I catch 'er hoss and search them saddlebags for evvy-dence," Mak ordered. Eskalie's mare had not run far in the darkness, and Mak was able to catch it without difficulty. He hitched the nervous animal to a wagon wheel, then began going through the nearest bag.
He had obviously been hoping for cash, jewelry, or other small, negotiable items. When he pulled out the ledgers, his face fell. Then he noticed the Forst crest on the covers. "Whoo-ee!" he exclaimed. "She ain't goin' to the Forst place, she's already bin! An' she brung half their fancy lit-ra-sure with 'er!"
"We take their stuff back, there'll be a ree-ward for sure!" Zilmor said. "That's right, love." Mak looked at her fondly. "We c'n get you some fancy clothes an' a really good shiltpron, so's the better places will hire ya. Eitan 'n me'll use our share to fix up th' wagon, mebbe get a new team. A few good years, an' we can get us a real house, mebbe have some kids..."
"This calls fer a party!" Eitan exclaimed, abandoning his post on the wagon seat to rummage in the other saddlebag. (The mules, sensible creatures, promptly went to sleep.) A moment later, he triumphantly pulled out the two wine bottles. "See, our good Dee-tective Morrow's kindly pervided us with the fixin's!"
Mak chuckled. "High class drinks, an' a high class Gen: Zil, honey, get your shiltpron out, and we'll have us a celly-bration better'n any of them rich lorshes!"
The others cheered. Zilmor started to gather wood for a campfire. Eitan parked the wagon and tended the mules and horses, hobbling them and turning them loose to graze. Meanwhile, Mak took charge of the docile Tallin, hearding the Gen over to the fire Zilmor was trying to start. The Gen showed no interest in arming itself with any of the thick branches which Zilmor had left temptingly close.
As they worked, the three discussed the best way to secure their prisoner.
"Put 'er in with the Gens," Eitan suggested. "We got a good lock on that cage; she ain't gonna get out." "Zlin her, you idiot!" Mak berated his hapless brother. "She's four, mebbe five days from need, tops. Forsts ain't gonna be happy if she kills one o' their precious Gens!"
"We could put one o' the collars on her, and tie it to the bars in one corner, so's she couldn't reach 'em," Eitan insisted, nager showing stubborn belligerence.
"Come on, Eitan. What if she gits her hands free? Any Sime c'n open one o' them cheap collars. They make 'em that way on purpose."
"That fancy Gen o' hers has a collar what won't open without a key," Zilmor pointed out quietly. "We chain her up outside the wagon, she can't git loose, and she can't git at the Gens, neither."
The two men accepted the compromise. It didn't take them long to find the key to Tallin's collar in the bottom of the saddlebags. Shortly afterward, they locked the uncomfortable thing around Eskalie's neck. It was loose, because she was so much smaller than the Gen, but not loose enough to pull off over her head.
They hauled her over to the wagon, and Eitan threaded a spare length of rope through the loop on the collar. While Mak watched closely in case the Gens decided to make trouble, Zilmor entered the cage. She accepted the rope ends which Eitan handed her through the bars, and tied them to a bar on the far side of the cage. Even a Gen could have undone the knots, but the caged Gens showed no interest in freeing the captive Sime, and the rope wasn't long enough for Eskalie to reach that side of the cage.
Satisfied that their prisoner would stay put, Mak, Eitan and Zilmor turned their attention to celebrating their good luck. While Zilmor carefully unwrapped her battered shiltpron from the rags which shielded it from the elements, Mak attacked the corks of the wine bottles with the small knife from his harness-mending kit.
Eskalie took advantage of her captors' distraction to take stock of her situation. By moving right up to the wagon, she got enough slack to sit down. The belt which secured her arms applied cruel pressure to her laterals if she moved carelessly. Her right shoulder was one massive bruise from her fall, the whip cut on her left wrist stung, and she suspected that she had gotten road dust up some of her tentacle sheaths. The first priority was to free her hands while she still could. If she couldn't move her stiffening muscles soon, she would be too crippled to escape even if someone were to cut her loose and hand her the reins of her horse.
She forced one swollen handling tentacle out of its sheath and felt for the belt buckle. As she worked, she kept a wary eye on the gathering by the campfire.
The three Simes were in a jolly mood. They had already finished one bottle of wine, and the level of liquid in the other was dropping steadily as they made more and more extravagant plans for spending their expected "ree-ward" money. By this time, it had grown in their imaginations to a substantial percentage of the Forsts' net worth. Tallin, the traitor, was enjoying the merriment. When Zilmor began to tune her shiltpron, the Gen's nager brightened with eagerness, and it reached into its flute case.
Strangely enough, considering the burgler's tool kit hidden inside, what it withdrew was only the three sections of a silver flute. Putting them together, it blew a pure note, then looked at Zilmor expectantly.
"What's it doin' with that whistle?" Eitan demanded petulently.
"Quiet," Zilmor ordered. "I think it wants to play with me." She plucked a string on the shiltpron, then frowned and tuned it slightly higher.
Tallin gave the pitch again, and this time the shiltpron matched it.
Quickly, Zilmor adjusted the other strings.
When the instruments were in tune, the Gen began a sprightly children's song. Zilmor started to play as it began the second verse, filling in an accompaniment on audible mode only. The third time through, she took the melody while Tallin's flute wove a cheery counterpoint around it.
As the Gen concentrated on the pure tones it was producing, its nager began to resonate with the flute's vibrations. When Zilmor extended her laterals to touch the shiltpron's resonating tines, the effect was magnified, sending a shiver of pure joy through the small audience.
Even Eskalie, who had given up trying to catch the free end of the belt in her weakened handling tentacle and was now attempting to immobilize it between her boot heels, was caught up in the performance and paused in her efforts. Zilmor's growing reputation was well deserved; she had a positive genius for shaping the ambient. Despite the interference from the fields of the eight now-sleeping Gens in the wagon above, Eskalie was able to zlin how the woman captured the unique essence of Tallin's nager, so that her audience seemed to be living within ever-shifting wisps of fog, surrounded by the boundless optimism of selyn production.
The duet reached a spirited conclusion. For one stunned moment, the two men gaped across the fire, then they broke into loud cheers. Eitan lifted the remaining wine bottle in a reverent salute. "Zil, ya keep playin' like that, there ain't no limits to how far ya can go! I never zlinned nothing like it, and I been in plenty of shiltpron parlors."
"It was the Gen," Zilmor stated matter-of-factly. "Shiltpron can't bring out what ain't there. Most Gens don't care 'bout music, 'specially when they're in the middle of a bunch of drunken Simes lookin' for a good time. Beatin' 'em up gives me enough pain an' fear to work with, an' the crowd likes it just fine, but it's kinda limitin', know what I mean?"
"Not any more," Mak promised, taking the bottle from Eitan and helping himself to a generous swig. "That Gen was running free when I captured it.We'll claim it for you all nice an' legal, first thing tomorrow!"
Zilmor's eyes reflected the blaze of happiness in her nager. She held out her hand for the wine, and recklessly downed two gulps. When she tried to pass it back, Tallin reached for it. Laughing, she let the Gen have the bottle. As it took a sip and rolled the liquid around in its mouth, nager broadcasting its pleasure at the taste, she said, "See? Gen's been places where they don't serve water, if ya know what I mean. It'll take to a shiltpron parlor, no problem." She reached out a hand, tentacles carefully retracted, and patted the Gen's shoulder affectionately. "You an' me's gonna go a long way, pet, wait an' see."
Tallin passed the bottle on to Eitan, then lifted the flute again, entreating Zilmor with a few pleading notes in a minor key. Smiling, she took the hint and started a mournful ballad.
Eskalie had used the brief pause to pin her belt strap securely between her boots. Knowing that her captors were too caught up in the music to notice, she gritted her teeth and pulled, trying to work the buckle's tongue free from its hole. The belt bit painfully into her abused tentacle sheaths as she concentrated on moving slowly. She muffled a yelp as one lateral came perilously close to being pinched, then sighed in relief as the buckle let go and the strap loosened.
Her back and shoulders ached with returning circulation, but that was a healthy pain. The pain from her mangled forearms was anything but healthy, she discovered upon closer inspection. None of her laterals was badly damaged, but that was the only bright spot in an otherwise gloomy prognosis. Between whip cuts and bruising from the belt, she could use only one handling tentacle on her left arm. The right arm wasn't much better. It had relatively minor bruises, but there was already some swelling from the road grit which had worked its way into her tentacle sheaths when she fell. Healing such injuries would be expensive, but if she could get her evidence to Tormen, her share of the bonus her uncle had promised should more than cover the penalty for claiming an early kill.
Of course, before she could present her saddlebags at military headquarters, she would have to liberate both them and herself from their current captivity. If she had had Tallin's skill at burglary, she could no doubt have picked the lock on the collar with a splinter torn off one of the wagon's planks. Unfortunately, she had always planned to be a law-abiding citizen. Sighing, she grasped the rope with both hands and began sawing it rapidly back and forth against the roughest edge of wood she could find, zlinning carefully to make sure that she was keeping the friction on one spot.
It was monotonous work, and she had to fight the temptation to lose herself in the impromptu shiltpron and flute recital. In their search for a common repertoire, the two musicians were covering a bewildering range of styles, all with full nageric modulation driven by the power of Tallin's nager. The resulting emotional roller coaster was enough to overwhelm any Sime. Mak and Eitan were completely enthralled in the music, oblivious to any distractions, as was Zilmor. Eskalie was using the flat, uninvolved nagers of the caged Gens to block some of the effect, but she still caught tantalizing glimpses of the focused, molten core of Tallin's nager, as the nageric haze which usually obscured it shifted with the music. In response, her intil began to rise, adding to her misery.
She was a third of the way through the rope, and the sky was growing lighter with the approaching dawn, when she realized that the shiltpron had stopped playing several songs ago. The powerful nageric modulations now dominating the ambient nager were being controlled by Tallin, not Zilmor. The three Simes around the campfire were all pre-turnover, so they had not raised intil. However, they had all consumed a great deal of very potent, oak-aged wine, and Tallin was playing soothing lullabies, accompanied by an expert projection of comfort and security. In response to that insidious suggestion, Mak, Eitan, and Zilmor had curled up and gone to sleep.
Tallin caught her eye and winked. Unhurriedly, the Gen finished the song, gradually lightening its nageric manipulation. For a full two minutes, Tallin watched the sleeping Simes carefully for signs of movement, as it absentmindedly took its flute apart, cleaned the sections, and returned them to their box. Only when it was sure that Mak, Eitan and Zilmor wouldn't wake did it stroll casually over to inspect Eskalie's efforts.
The inner core of the Gen's nager was once more obscured, but she zlinned a hint of respect, and a great deal more than a hint of amusement.
"I think Eitan still has the key," Eskalie said pointedly, annoyed at the way the Gen was viewing her hard work as if it were the efforts of a precocious two-year-old.
"Never mind, I've got a duplicate here." Tallin rummaged in the flute case for a moment, then held up the bit of metal. The amusement abruptly disappeared from the Gen's nager as it caught sight of her right arm.
"Shen and shid!" it swore, dropping the key on the ground and kneeling beside her.
One large, Gen hand closed firmly around her right wrist, and the other began expertly assessing the damage. Eskalie's jaw dropped in astonishment, then she gasped as the cool, selyn-rich fingers rested on her inflamed tentacle sheaths. It was a very pleasant sensation, but she would have enjoyed it much more if it hadn't made her feel so vulnerable.
"Let me go!" she demanded. She started to twist her arm, hoping to jerk it free of the Gen's grasp, then stopped as her bruised shoulder protested.
Tallin ignored her objection, finishing its examination before releasing her. "It'll be a few days before you can use those tentacles properly, but there doesn't seem to be any permanent damage. Let me see your other arm."
Eskalie glared up at the big Gen, but it just stared calmly back at her, left hand extended, the large palm up. There was something different about its nager, a certain unruffled determination which showed clearly that Tallin expected to be obeyed. The docile pet Gen of the past three days was gone, and she wasn't sure what had taken its place.
For a moment, Eskalie debated refusing Tallin's demand, but then common sense reasserted itself. There was no hint of a threat in the Gen's nager, and besides, the key was out of her reach.
Sullenly, she laid her left hand in the Gen's, gritting her teeth against the mingled pain/pleasure its touch evoked. It was entirely the wrong combination of sensations for her in her present state. She could feel her shiltpron-evoked intil growing. Firmly, she reminded herself that Tallin didn't belong to her even if she were really in need, which she wasn't.
When the Gen was satisfied that her injuries weren't life threatening, it handed over the key. Eskalie lost no time freeing herself from the collar. She staggered to her feet, then grabbed for the wagon as the world seemed to spin about her.
Tallin steadied her, the Gen's focused concern giving her a fixed beacon by which to reorient herself. "Take it easy," it said. "You've been through quite a bit tonight. Why don't you sit back down and rest for a few minutes, while I get the horses ready?"
"I'm not hurt that badly," Eskalie protested weakly. "It's mostly just the aftereffects of that shendi-flamed shiltpron. There's been enough time wasted here already."
"It will cost us a lot more time if you fall and injure yourself worse, because you're too dizzy to walk straight." The Gen guided her firmly over to the front of the wagon, where the long wooden tongue rested on the ground, forming an almost horizontal, if splintery, seat.
The brief walk convinced Eskalie that she couldn't go much further, so she sat as ordered. The Gen glanced towards the three Simes by the fire, checking to make sure that they were still asleep, then went to chase after the horses, which in the course of the night had wandered over the crest of the hill in search of better grazing, despite the hobbles.
A few minutes of deep breathing, with her head between her knees, eased much of Eskalie's light-headedness. It would be hours yet before she threw off the effects of the shiltpron completely, and she expected quite a hangover when she did, but she could function again, at least well enough to stay on her horse and keep ahead of the pursuit.
In aid of which...
She zlinned down the road, and discovered a rapidly approaching Sime nager, aching with need and the fatigue of a long, hard ride, and seething with an all-consuming fury.
It was Yosum Forst.
Quickly, Eskalie ducked under the wagon. If Yosum galloped by at his current speed, the Gens' nagers might block her own enough to prevent him from noticing her.
However, even if he didn't detect her, Yosum had no trouble zlinning the three sleeping Simes, or recognizing them and their stolen cargo. He pulled his lathered horse to a plunging halt near the campfire. His upper lip curled in a sneer as he saw the empty wine bottles and the shiltpron, then he dismounted in one flowing motion. The fury consuming him blazed higher as he strode over to Mak and kicked the hapless teamster solidly in the ribs.
"Wake up, you fool!" he snarled. "Have you seen a young woman on a gray mare, traveling with a pet Gen?"
Mak opened his eyes, then closed them again quickly. He moaned, rubbed his sore ribs, then opened his eyes again. He squinted at Yosum for a moment, then mumbled, "Tuib Forst."
"Yes," Yosum agreed. "We will discuss your behavior while under contract when you are sober. Before you passed out, did you zlin a young woman with a male Gen traveling towards Sommerin? She stole some records from our office yesterday evening."
"Oh." Mak thought a moment, then extended a handling tentacle to gesture weakly towards the wagon. "Gotter over by wagon," he said. "Books inna saddlebag." He muttered something else about a "ree-ward" as he lost consciousness, but Yosum was no longer listening. He snatched up Eskalie's saddlebags, confirmed that the paper inside was the missing ledgers, then headed directly for the wagon.
Eskalie's hiding place would never withstand a thorough search, so she crawled out from under the wagon and met him part way.
"Hello, Yosum," she greeted him.
"You!" His fury battered at her, undermining her tenuous self-control. "Why did you do it?" he demanded. "I was going to marry you, give you the guidance you require to make the most of your position. And you had to go and spoil it by spying!"
Eskalie spluttered incoherently for a moment, then found her tongue. "You arrogant lorsh!" she screamed back. "I wouldn't let you into my bed for a one night stand, let alone permanently! I'd rather marry one of those drunken fools over by the fire than a shedoni-doomed Gen-thief like you!"
They glared at each other, the rage a solid wall between them. Yosum knew that the penalty for stealing Gens was death by attrition, a horror intensified by his approaching need. Since she would not place herself under his control, his only chance was to prevent her from presenting her findings to the authorities.
Eskalie was prepared to fight off an attempt at murder, but Yosum grinned at her cruelly, dripping laterals extending as he deliberately raised intil. She backed away, shaking her head in disbelief. He means to kill me! she realized, fighting down nausea. Only Householders were perverted enough to take their selyn from another Sime.
Before Yosum could fix on her, they were distracted by Tallin's approaching nager. When the Gen saw what was happening, it dropped the horses' reins and advanced at a brisk pace. As it came, the selyn-fog which usually surrounded it evaporated, exposing both Simes to the full effect of the most powerful, seductive Gen nager either had ever zlinned.
Eskalie doubled over with a moan of denial. It took every ounce of stubbornness she could muster to keep herself from the disgrace of killing someone else's Gen.
Yosum had no such scruples. Already committed to a kill, he warned Eskalie off with a snarled, "It's mine!" and pounced.
Eskalie closed her eyes, unable to watch what she couldn't help zlinning: the end of her hard-won career with Kirlin Security. She could never afford to repay Tallin's owner, not unless she gave up all her dreams of independence and returned to her parents' bank. It seemed utterly unfair that she should have to pay for the Gen and not even get to kill it.
Yosum's tentacles seized Tallin and pulled it roughly forward to complete the contact. The selyn flow began, followed almost instantly by exquisite agony, and the terror of a life forced abruptly into a premature ending... Eskalie reopened her eyes and stared in horror as Tallin let the warm, pliant corpse slide to the ground. Yosum lay in the dust like a rag doll, one outstretched arm clearly showing the Gen's fingerprints on the crushed laterals. Tallin looked down at him, nager ringing in grim satisfaction, and murmured to itself with a quiet intensity, "And so, the first installment on Nilba's Death Price is paid by my hand."
Eskalie backed up slowly, heart pounding. A killer Gen was a nightmare out of Sesfin's trashy novels. One didn't expect to meet such a creature face to face. She was shaking with the knowledge of how close she had come to death, all unknowing. At any time during the past four days, she could have done something which frightened or angered the Gen, with fatal consequences. Only half an hour ago, she had let the monster touch her, deadly fingers resting on her sheathed laterals. One squeeze, and she would have shared Yosum's fate, or worse.
She stifled a scream as the Gen looked at her, its focused attention freezing her in place. Wildly, she glanced towards the fire. The three Simes were so deeply asleep--or unconscious--that even Yosum's deathshock hadn't made them stir. There would be no help from them. Eskalie wondered if she was to be the second installment of the "Death Price" Tallin had mentioned. However, the Gen merely pointed to the saddlebags Yosum had dropped. "Bring those," it ordered calmly. "It's time we got out of here."
Tallin's matter-of-fact assumption that she would obey showed, better than any threat, that it could enforce its commands. Numbly, Eskalie picked up the saddlebags and stumbled after the Gen. She waited while it saddled the horses, then tied the bags to the back of her saddle. When Tallin came to help her mount, she desperately pulled herself up onto the mare's back, unwilling to let the killer Gen touch her. It shrugged, then mounted the gelding. Taking the mare's reins, it started down the road to Sommerin.
As the miles went by, Eskalie grimly clutched the mare's mane, holding on to consciousness by sheer will. She couldn't survive disorientation along with her other injuries.
It was midmorning, and they were about two miles from the outskirts of Sommerin, when Tallin abruptly turned off the main road onto a faint set of wagon tracks. Perhaps five minutes later, their way was barred by a locked gate in a high stone wall, covered with raspberry bushes which had been allowed to grow into a deadly tangle. Eskalie shuddered at the thought of what would happen to any Sime attempting to climb the barrier.
Fortunately, Tallin had a different plan. Dismounting, the Gen opened its flute case and removed the lock pick. Moments later, it had the gate open. Eskalie brought the horses through as it commanded, then waited as it carefully closed and relocked the gate before remounting.
As the path wound through a carefully managed woodlot, then began leading more directly towards Sommerin, a growing sense of wrongness nagged at Eskalie. There was something about this place which meant danger, over and above the danger from the killer Gen which had kidnapped her.
It wasn't long before they came out of the woods and began making their way past well-tended fields. She zlinned seventeen distant workers planting one field: eight Simes, two children, and seven Gens. That was too many Gens for a normal farm, and more Simes than a Genfarm would use. Thinking that her field discernment was still distorted, she looked to confirm her perception, and saw that the workers were dressed in identical jumpsuits of a deep blue-green and gray.
It was the livery of Householding Dar, Sommerin's resident enclave of perverts. Its members were widely considered the deadliest fighters in the entire Territory--and they had a reputation for taking violent exception to uninvited guests. Consequently, Dar seldom suffered from the pogroms which regularly decimated its sister Houses. Even the disenfranchised poor who made up such mobs weren't usually that suicidal.
Tallin apparently wasn't worried about possible hostility from the residents. Indeed, much of the Gen's former alertness had faded. It seemed to feel that it was protected here.
Which was probably true, Eskalie thought. The Simes who joined Householdings might be perverted, but they weren't hypocritical in their solemn vow never to harm Gens. However, even if Tallin was safe from any pursuit here, she doubted the perverts would extend their protection to her. They had good reason to distrust non-Householders who trespassed on their property, and they might not stop to ask whether that intrusion was her idea.
She was trying to think of something to say which would keep them from murdering her out of hand when Tallin drew rein and dismounted in a spacious, cobbled courtyard surrounded on three sides by brick buildings. Unfortunately, by then her shiltpron-induced lightheadedness had turned into the splitting headache of a hangover, and she was not functioning at her usual efficiency.
Thus, when a door crashed open and a young Sime hurtled towards Tallin with augmented speed, she was far too late to call out a warning. Tallin turned towards him, arms outstretched, and Eskalie could only watch in horror as the young man threw himself heedlessly into the Gen's deadly grasp.
Only to be caught up in a bear hug, as their nagers blended in happiness. The two grinned at each other, then the young Sime said, "So, Father, what luck?"
Half an hour later, when a liberal dose of fosebine, a hot shower, a change of clothing from her saddlebags, and a generous application of soothing salve to her injured tentacle sheaths had restored Eskalie to a minimal level of functioning, she was still trying to get the situation straight. "You talked my uncle into hiring me as a cover, so your trained Gen could steal the Forst Genfarm accounts?"
"Well, it was Father's idea, originally," the young man confessed. "But I did arrange the details with General Morlin. It took some doing, too. He didn't want his niece involved in anything dangerous."
Eskalie snorted in derision.
"Indeed," Tallin nodded in amusement. "You weren't supposed to be involved in the burglary..." Without asking permission, the Gen helped itself to another slice of bread and cheese from the generously laden tray on the desk. It was now dressed in the livery every Sime, child and Gen seemed to wear here. She pitied the poor Householder who didn't look good in blue-green and gray.
They were gathered in a small, ground-level office near the infirmary, which belonged to Califf, the young man who claimed to be Tallin's son. As the recently acclaimed leader--Sectuib?--of the Householding, Califf was the titular owner of all the Gens and other property within the walls. He was young for the position, not long out of First Year, and remarkably handsome and well-bred, for a pervert. His field had seemed reasonably normal, if unusually strong, when he greeted Tallin in the courtyard. However, since she had joined them, it had shown a disconcerting tendency to pulse with increasing selyn, in a weird imitation of a Gen's. She found herself checking frequently to make sure that he hadn't mislaid his tentacles.
"We've been looking into the thefts from the military Gen supply since last summer," Califf explained. "The Gen shortages provoked quite a bit of violence against Householdings, including several dozen murders and at least as many kills. My mother was one of the casualties; she was visiting at another House when it was attacked, and died trying to get the children to safety. The situation will get worse if the brigands are allowed to continue."
"But to send a Gen to investigate a gang of Gen stealers?" Eskalie was having trouble with the concept. "What if they had decided your...father," another difficult concept, "was a good Gen to steal?"
"Oh, they did," Tallin affirmed. "Although they were willing to buy me legally, if they could talk you into selling."
"You see?" Eskalie said to Califf, feeling vindicated. "Sending a Gen on that kind of mission was asking for trouble."
"You have to admit," Tallin swallowed a bite of the cheese, "that my skills proved rather useful."
"That's another thing." Eskalie took a sip of the excellent homegrown trin tea in her mug. "Who trained the Gen to pick locks like that? From what I've heard, you folks are more into guarding valuables than stealing them."
Califf referred the question to the Gen in question, which shrugged. "My mother was Sommerin's leading locksmith, and she taught me everything she knew. She was trampled to death in a riot when I was a child of twelve." Years later, the memory brought a gentle melancholy to Tallin's nager. "The government seized the store, of course. I took to the streets, and fell in with a pair of burglars who found my skills very useful. They didn't feed me more than the absolute minimum, though. I was in the middle of a growth spurt, so I was half starved."
Eskalie didn't want to imagine how much food the Gen had required during adolescence, given its current appetite. "What happened?" she demanded impatiently, when the Gen paused to stare meditatively into its tea mug.
"I noticed that the Householding Gens and children seemed well fed, so I got in by the back gate one night, and began helping myself to whatever I could find in the fields." A rueful smile crossed the Gen's features. "I'd have gotten away with it, too, if I hadn't just begun to establish. My nager was a lot more conspicuous than I suspected."
"Bet it didn't take you...er...Householders long to claim a prize like that," Eskalie remarked, shooting an envious glance at the other Sime.
Before Tallin learned how to kill, the Gen would have broken all records at the Choice Auctions.
"It wasn't quite that simple," Tallin contradicted mildly, "but yes, I pledged Dar, and on the whole it's been a good choice for me."
Considering the alternatives faced by a new Gen outside a Householding, Eskalie wasn't surprised. However, it was time to return to business.
Draining the last of her tea, she replaced her mug on the tray, and turned to Califf. "Thank you for your hospitality, but I should be going. If I ride through the night, I can make Torman by morning."
"But you're injured, and your mare is exhausted," Califf protested. "You must stay until you have recovered. The evidence you and Father collected won't disappear. A few days' delay isn't critical."
"I'm afraid any delay might be critical," Eskalie contradicted him politely. Briefly, she explained what she had deduced from "Plur's" letters. "So you see," she finished firmly, "the General must be warned about the danger."
"The danger isn't as great as you think," Tallin said. "Mirta Dulkar's tame assassin can't reach the General at military headquarters. The guards would stop him long before he could get close enough to do any damage.
He'll have to try at the General's home, off base. Unfortunately for him, three of our members are on the team investigating the Gen thefts. Since there isn't a Householding at Torman, and no inn will accept our business, General Morlin invited them to stay at his house. I pity the poor assassin who tries to take on Beren, Wasrid, and Lorel!"
"The General has a right to know that he's in danger," Eskalie insisted, ignoring the Gen's impertinence.
"I agree, but there is no reason why you must carry the warning," Califf pointed out. "I'll find a courier to take whatever messages you wish to your uncle. We're celebrating a wedding this afternoon. If you insist, I'll have a dozen or so of my people escort you and your evidence to Torman as soon as it's over. However, you really should consider staying until you've healed."
Is the man really that incapable of zlinning the obvious? Eskalie wondered. "Thank you for your offer, but I couldn't stay in any case. I will be in need soon, and my Pen registration is at Torman."
"How will that help you?" Califf demanded. "Look at your arms! Even the heaviest-drugged Pen Gen will struggle when it's being killed. With one uninjured handling tentacle, you'd be shenned long before you drew enough selyn to heal yourself, much less last out the month."
"The killhouses have restraints..." Eskalie began.
"Most of which are ineffective and in poor repair," Califf argued. "And don't tell me you're willing to take your chances with an unconscious Gen.
That would be worse than no kill at all, even if you could make yourself do it."
"Are you suggesting that I take my selyn from you, you filthy, debased...?" Eskalie made no attempt to control her revulsion as she searched for the right noun to complete the sentence. She couldn't seem to find one; such words had been carefully censored from the Sommerin Acadamy's vocabulary-building lessons.
Califf sighed. "That would be the easiest solution, but if it isn't acceptable to you, there is another alternative."
"What, pervert?" Eskalie demanded suspiciously, glaring at the channel. Tallin cleared its throat. "There's no reason to be vulgar," the Gen scolded mildly. "We were about to suggest that you take your selyn from me."
Eskalie felt her jaw drop.
"Of course, Father is used to channels, and you aren't one," Califf continued. "You don't have the capacity to really satisfy him. However, he can give you a full month's worth of selyn--and you won't have to worry about being shenned."
Eskalie had never heard of a Householding offering one of its Gens as a kill. Usually, they offered to murder any Sime who tried. In Tallin's case, they wouldn't have to bother. "Not worry about being shenned?" she told Califf incredulously. "Don't you know what your precious Gen did to Yosum Forst?" She shuddered.
"He was trying to kill you at the time, so why are you so upset about it?" Tallin asked, puzzled. "You have never given me a reason to wish you dead. I am a Companion. You can't harm me by taking my selyn. Why, then, should I wish to harm you?" A flicker of amusement shifted the nageric fog. "Besides, I promised your uncle that I'd take care of you."
The obscuring mist lightened, exposing the brilliant core of selyn beneath. It was the most beautiful, compelling Gen nager she had ever zlinned--and she felt absolutely no desire to attack, despite her closeness to need. She could zlin the determination in both Califf and the Gen. They intended to keep her here, whether she wished to stay or not. She had no illusions that she could fight her way past a Dar guard, or even one of their trained Gens, so she had better make sure she didn't have to do so.
"Well, I suppose your plan is a sensible one," she said reluctantly. "I will consider it while I prepare a message for your courier, and give you my answer later."
To her relief, Califf accepted the noncommittal response. Tallin showed her to a room in the infirmary, provided her with writing materials, and left her to her own devices. She spent half an hour composing a letter of warning to her uncle. She had barely sealed it when a child knocked on the door with the news that the courier was ready. She handed him the message, then lay down to rest.
The window in her room overlooked a hard-packed patch of dirt which served as an exercise ground. She had left the insulating drapes open. Idly, she watched a group of people practicing hand-to-hand combat with some Gens. After a while, they began rehearsing some tactics which involved very peculiar nageric interactions between the Simes and Gens. Perverts or not, these people worked hard to earn their reputation as fighters. She hadn't thought it was possible to train a Gen to fight so well, but the perverts' pets compared favorably with most of the guard dogs she had seen, even if they were a bit slower.
Shortly after noon, the group disbanded. She zlinned the Householders and their Gens scattering to the residential sections of the building, then a growing distortion in the ambient as they congregated in a large hall in another wing. She waited an extra fifteen minutes, to make sure that any stragglers would be out of her way, then picked up her saddlebags and climbed out the window.
It really was too bad that she had to sneak out without taking proper leave of her host. Califf meant well, but she had trouble believing that even a pervert with a Gen father could be so naive. Did he really think that a Gen which had killed once could be trusted not to do so again?
Eskalie had no intention of being the one to find out, and she wasn't sure that Califf's offer of an armed escort to Torman after the wedding was genuine, either. It would be too easy for him to find a plausable delay or two, just enough to force her to stay a few days. All for her own good, of course.
Better to take matters into her own tentacles.
She followed her nose to the stable, which was on the outskirts of the cluster of buildings that formed the Householding proper. On the way, she passed the laundry. Struck by a sudden inspiration, she raided a clothesline for a set of Dar livery that would fit her. If Califf was right, and the Gen thieves were searching for her, the costume might confuse those who didn't know her personally.
For the same reason, she didn't dare ride the gray mare. Instead, she selected a good-tempered bay built for endurance, if not speed. She didn't like taking the horse without permission, but if she couldn't return it, the mare she left behind was easily worth twice as much.
The front gate would be guarded, since it opened onto Sommerin proper. She turned the bay towards the fields and nudged it into an easy jog, hoping that movement within the Householding lands would attract less attention. She passed no one, and breathed a sigh of relief as she reached the partial cover of the woodlot.
It took her nearly fifteen minutes to pick the lock on the back gate, but she managed it at last, and made good her escape. From there, it was only two miles to the outskirts of Sommerin. She zlinned disgust and occasional hatred as she made her way through the congested streets, as people reacted to her pervert's disguise, but no one seemed to recognize her as an individual.
When she reached the main road on the other side of Sommerin, she set herself to cover the thirty miles to Torman as quickly as her horse could manage. She hummed as she rode, in good spirits despite her closeness to need. It felt good to be in control again. That overbearing Householding Gen had been running her investigation from behind the scene, keeping her half-informed while it manipulated her into doing what it wanted. She had been happy to defer to Tallin's superior skill at burglary, but she was shenned if she was going to let it run her private life as well. She might be injured and due for a kill, but she was also a professional in her own right. Right now, that meant she had an obligation to give her employer the information he required to protect himself. Personally. There was always the chance that the courier hadn't made it through.
For Califf was wrong. Her uncle's greatest danger was not at his home, or from Mirta's brother.
The bay was willing enough, but it was still midmorning of the following day before Eskalie reached Torman. Thanks to the salve Califf had applied, the whip cut on her left wrist was no longer stinging, although the handling tentacles on that arm were still stiff and painful to move. However, the tentacle sheaths on her right arm were swollen to twice their usual size, and they throbbed unmercifully. She couldn't extend those tentacles at all. What healing she had achieved had its price. Sometime during the long night, she had slipped into active need. Still, she rode by the public Pen without slowing. She would claim her kill after she had delivered her documents and her warning.
When she reached the Border Patrol's camp, the perimeter guard took one look at her Dar livery, sneered, and directed her to General Morlin's office without asking her business. Aching in every muscle, she dismounted in front of the administrative headquarters. Slinging her saddlebags over her shoulder, she wearily made her way into the main offices of the Border Patrol, Eastern Division.
After the stress of the last week, it was a tremendous relief to know that her job was almost done. Being human, she lowered her guard. So the hurtling body which slammed her to the ground caught her completely by surprise. By the time she had recovered, there was a wickedly sharp blade poised just two inches from her left eye.
The wielder of the dagger was a fierce-looking woman wearing a familiar blue-green and gray livery. She glared down at Eskalie, and murmured, "Give me an excuse, and I'll be happy to save the government the cost of a trial."
Prudently, Eskalie lay very still.
The woman raised her head and called to the private who was watching wide-eyed from the safety of his desk. "You, there. Tell the General I've nabbed the assassin."
"I'm not an assasain!" Eskalie started to sit up, then froze when the knife moved an inch closer. "Please, tell me what's been happening here," she begged. "Is the General all right?"
The woman looked at her skeptically. "Why are you so interested in his health?"
"I have information for him," Eskalie said.
"What's going on out here, Lorel?" General Morlin's commanding voice demanded.
"This youngster claims she has some information for you," Lorel reported, her attention never wavering from her captive. "She's dressed like one of us, but I've never seen her before in my life."
"Eskalie!" Morlin exclaimed. "Lorel, let her up. She's the detective who was fronting for Tallin at the Forst Genfarm. Where is Tallin,anyway?"
Eskalie levered herself painfully to her feet. The less-than-gentle handling had rebruised the same shoulder she had fallen on when Mak pulled her from her horse, and her right hand had hit something very hard. She massaged it gently, wishing she had chosen a less physically demanding profession. Wrestling bears, for instance.
"The Gen's safe with its owner back at Sommerin," she said. "I came on ahead to show you these." She patted her saddlebags.
Morlin zlinned the bound paper inside. "Tallin was able to get the account ledgers?"
"I've got records of all Gens bought and sold in the past two years, both the official and unofficial versions," Eskalie corrected. She couldn't suppress a grin of triumph. "In case you're curious, they don't match."
"My team was just discussing the military side of the investigation," Morlin said at once. "Come along to the conference room, and we'll see what you have."
There were two people and a Gen seated around the conference table. She had already met her uncle's aide, Corporal Laitu from Supply. The other man and the female Gen wore Dar livery, and were introduced as Wasrid and Beren, respectively.
They watched avidly as she showed them the entries which were listed as shipments from "P" in the red ledger, but disguised as establishments in the blue one. It didn't take long for Wasrid and the Gen to confirm that the same numbers and sexes of Gens had disappeared from the Gen reserve approximately a week before each delivery date.
As they worked, and the General watched eagerly over their shoulders, Eskalie drew Laitu aside. "Would you be willing to give me some assistance, Corporal?" she asked. "I should tell the owner of the mare and gelding you borrowed for me what happened to the beasts, but I will have difficulty writing for a few days." She held out her right hand, where purple bruises were clashing with the redder swelling of the tentacle sheaths above them.
"I would be happy to write a note for you," the young man said gallantly. He found a clean sheet of paper, and took a quill from the inkwell on the table. He wrote the date and salutation, then looked at her expectantly.
"I regret the delay in returning the horses you loaned at General Morlin's request..." Eskalie dictated.
"The information here still won't lead us to the head of this conspiracy," Wasrid lamented as Laitu finished writing.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Eskalie said, skimming the paper Laitu handed her. "Thank you, Corporal, this will do nicely." She put the note back down on the table, then casually removed the letters from her saddlebag and set them beside the note. "Or should I call you 'Plur'?" Laitu erupted out of his chair, nager suddenly roiling with an equal mixture of fear and fury. For the fourth time in three days, Eskalie found herself under attack, but this time Laitu's hands and tentacles got a good grip around her neck. This is getting very old, very fast, Eskalie thought as she tried to free herself. Unable to use her handling tentacles, she was getting the worst of the contest.
However, Wasrid and the Gen pulled the snarling corporal off her and subdued him, before much more than her dignity was injured. When Eskalie had gotten her breath back, and her clothing rearranged, she stood at her best imitation of military attention and croaked formally, "General Morlin, I have found your criminal mastermind--and the proof you require to convict him."
"But what made you suspect Laitu, of all people?" Morlin asked when the hapless prisoner had been removed to the stockade, cursing and crying with terror all the way. "He was so enthusiastic about helping with the investigation."
Eskalie shrugged, taking another sip from her well-earned cup of trin tea, liberally laced with lemon to soothe her abused throat. "If you were in his position, wouldn't you want to keep track of it?" She grinned tiredly. "Seriously, I met three of Mirta Dulkar's part-time henchmen on the road as I returned, transporting the eight stolen Gens mentioned in the last letter." She grimaced. "They attacked me because I fitted a detailed description they had been given of a spy masquerading as General Morlin's niece. It was pretty obvious that whoever was behind the thefts knew almost everything there was to know about me and my mission--with one important exception."
She had daydreamed of being in this position since Amsil had hired her. She savored the moment, taking a leisurely sip of her tea, daring any of the people looking at her so intently to guess what had drawn her attention to Laitu. When the suspense had built high enough that it was beginning to irritate her need, she explained. "Of all the people who could have supplied the information, Laitu was the only one who didn't know that my 'cover role' was real. My colleagues at the agency know that 'Morrow' isn't my original last name, and so did the Householders." She rolled her eyes in her uncle's direction. "Tallin even mentioned a promise to 'look after your niece.' If our criminal had known I was a Morlin, he would have said so, to avoid just the kind of confusion that let me keep one step ahead of the Forsts."
"That's pretty flimsy evidence," Wasrid pointed out. "Laitu could have been guilty of nothing more than talking too much to the wrong person."
"Oh, it was circumstantial," Eskalie admitted. "But even though 'Plur' didn't have a distinctive handwriting, he was a very creative speller.
When I asked Laitu to write a note for me just now, he wrote 'horsis' instead of 'horses', just like in the letters. I was pretty sure I had the right person--at least sure enough to lay out roach poison and see what ate it." She grinned ruefully, rubbing her throat. "I didn't anticipate that he would react quite that strongly, or I would have thought of something else." She took a last swallow of her tea and stood up. "And now, Lorel, gentlemen, I hope you will forgive me, but I am overdue for a trip to the Pen."
The General smiled at her, his nager radiating affection as he reached into his pocket. "Here," he said, handing her a money sack. "You've more than earned a bonus. Why don't you come to my town house for dinner after your kill, to celebrate?"
Eskalie reminded herself firmly that triumphant detectives who have just saved the Territory were not supposed to blush. "Thank you, Uncle, but I already have plans."
The tired bay gelding had long since been taken off to the stable, and it didn't belong to Eskalie anyway. She could have borrowed a fresh mount from her uncle, but he was distracted by a very young aide who had presented some routine documents for his signature. It was only three miles back to town, so Eskalie simply slung her saddlebags over her unbruised left shoulder and started walking.
She was finally beginning to feel comfortable as a Sime, she reflected optimistically as she left the military encampment behind. Need was uncomfortable, but no longer as frightening as it had been. She was able to tell herself that she would have a Gen soon enough, and divert some of her attention to enjoyment of the day.
When she reached the quiet meadow where she had first met the deceitful Corporal Laitu, the little brook which meandered through it babbled so invitingly that she left the road. Dropping her saddlebags in the grass, she made her way carefully down the steep bank and bent to immerse her swollen forearms in the water.
She gasped at the icy temperature, then tried to extend her handling tentacles. The left-hand ones had regained most of their flexibility, although they were very weak. Her right-hand tentacles were still too inflamed from the road dust to emerge from their sheaths more than an inch or so.
No matter. Her share of the bonus was more than enough to pay the fee a killhouse would charge for the use of their restraints. Once she had killed, she would heal in no time. Amsil might even give her a few days off, and if Sesfin wasn't too busy...
Life could be interesting, sometimes.
Just how interesting, she discovered fifteen minutes later, when she climbed back up the bank and discovered that she had unwelcome company in the secluded little valley: Mirta Dulkar, the red-haired leader of Torman's criminal element, who had offered Corporal Laitu the services of her brother the assassin. She was riding towards the military camp, perched inexpertly on an elderly, ungainly mount which probably spent most of its time pulling carts.
The woman zlinned Eskalie at the same moment, and her nager rang with triumph. With a yell, she pulled her horse off the road, and kicked the animal into a lumbering canter.
The city-bred Mirta was no horsewoman, and before half the distance was covered, the horse had slowed to a shambling trot. Some fifteen feet from Eskalie, it deliberately stumbled, almost throwing its rider. By the time Mirta had regained her seat, her charger had taken full advantage of the dropped reins, and had its nose greedily buried in the lush grass.
Eskalie, who had ridden before she could walk properly, was hard put to contain her amusement.
"What you smirkin' at, you mis'rable, spyin' nuisance!" Mirta demanded, dismounting awkwardly. Once on the ground, there was nothing clumsy about her. She crouched, preparing to spring at Eskalie with all the speed she couldn't force out of her horse.
Eskalie didn't know whether to laugh or howl. "Not again!" she groaned, bracing herself for yet another assault.
Whatever response Mirta had been expecting, this wasn't it. She straightened, and the hard aggression in her nager softened with confusion.
She looked at Eskalie more closely, and her upper lip twisted with scorn--and a touch of grudging respect--as she took in the rumpled Dar livery. "Dressin' up like a pervert," she said in amazed contempt. "What self-respectin' person would do somethin' like that? No wonder my people let you git so far."
Eskalie was glad that she had thought of using the costume.
"But that's over, now," Mirta continued. "I'll jest take these, so's you don't get any ideas about passin' on any evvy-dence," she picked up Eskalie's saddlebags and put them behind her horse's saddle, "and you an' me'll take a nice slow walk back ta town." Suddenly, a foot-long, razor-sharp knife appeared in her hand. "The Forsts'll be wantin' to have a little private chat with you, 'bout burglary bein' aginst the law and all. Didja know Blorin Forst's daughter-in-law is th' judge fer the whole a Sommerin county?" Her nager twisted in glee. "Start walkin' now, girl!"
The situation was no longer even slightly amusing. Eskalie had no doubt that the woman would use her knife if given the slightest excuse. Mirta was heavier, had years of experience in street fighting, and had full use of her tentacles. Any resistance on Eskalie's part would end in a slashed lateral. She turned and walked back to the road as slowly as she dared. Mirta followed, dragging her reluctant horse behind her.
Of course, Eskalie thought as she reached the road and turned towards Torman, her chances of escaping execution by attrition if she went before Blorin Forst's tame judge weren't any better than her chances of defeating Mirta. Her uncle would have the charges overturned as soon as he found out about them, but that would take time, and a posthumous clearing of her good name was of questionable value.
On the other hand, there was always the chance that she could manage to escape. However, it would have to be soon. Now that she could no longer depend on having a kill that afternoon, or at all if Mirta succeeded in delivering her to the Forsts, her need had suddenly turned from a minor and temporary annoyance to an urgent demand that threatened to swallow her.
It's only intil, she told herself as she fought it down. If she was to have the slightest chance of breaking free, she would have to be able to act with a clear head. She almost wished for Tallin's steady presence.
The sound of hoofbeats coming towards them brought them both to sudden alertness. Two horses, Eskalie identified automatically, and they're in a hurry. She couldn't zlin anything about the riders yet; the road took a sharp turn between two hills just ahead, where it left the valley.
"Don't you try nothin', girl," Mirta warned, dropping the reins to put her left hand on Eskalie's shoulder, shoving her to the side of the road. Her right hand rested the tip of the knife on Eskalie's back, just over her kidney. The deadly threat would not be immediately visible to the oncoming riders, and it wasn't painful enough to attract their attention on a casual zlinning, either. If they were in as much hurry as they sounded, they would probably not bother to stop and find out what was going on.
Mirta's horse, discovering its freedom, made a beeline for the nearest clump of grass.
When the riders came around the selyn-insulating hills and into zlinning range, Eskalie's jaw dropped in astonishment. Riding the lead horse, a flashy but tempermental chestnut, was Tallin. The Gen's nager was grim with a determination that boded ill for anyone who got in its way. Following closely, on a gray gelding, was the equally implacable Califf, with a very scared Sesfin perched precariously on the saddle behind him, clinging desperately to his belt with both hands and all eight handling tentacles.
Looking at the well-bred horses the perverts were riding, Eskalie reflected sourly that it was just her luck that she had found the stable where Dar kept its worst stock, when she was looking for an animal to steal. Califf's gray could be a full sibling of the mare her uncle had borrowed.
Come to think of it, Uncle Rabin never did tell me where he borrowed those horses...
Califf and his Gen brought their mounts from a fast canter to a perfectly collected halt in a distance that would have made Eskalie's old riding instructor weep with joy, nearly dumping poor Sesfin on the road in the process. As soon as the gray was relatively still, Eskalie's colleague hastily abandoned his uncertain perch for the safety of the ground.
"Eskalie, are you all right?" he asked anxiously, his homely face expressing a concern that even need couldn't quite overcome.
"She will be, if nobody gits stupid," Mirta answered. She jabbed Eskalie with the point of her knife, making the detective gasp, and bringing Sesfin to a wide-eyed halt.
"Really, Miz Dulkar," Califf observed casually, as he and Tallin dismounted with considerably more grace than Sesfin. "I don't think you fully understand your position." The well-trained horses stood where they were; the equally well-trained Gen moved at Califf's signal to a position some ten feet to Sesfin's right and a bit closer to the two women, while the pervert took a similar position to Sesfin's left.
Eskalie looked at the three with a dawning hope which was matched by Mirta's growing apprehension. The woman had apparently seen or heard enough about Dar fighters and their Gens to know that the calm confidence in Califf's and Tallin's nagers wasn't feigned. She would never get past either of them, especially with a hostage. She could defeat Sesfin easily enough, but not before the other two could reach her.
On the other hand, she could murder Eskalie before anyone could interfere. It was a stalemate--and in such a situation, the advantage generally lay with the one most willing to be ruthless. Eskalie zlinned her captor's confidence returning as she reached the same conclusion.
"Nice try, perverts," she said, tightening her grip on Eskaie. "But you fergot somethin'. I let this nosy nuisance git to the General, and I'm dead meat."
"Not really," Eskalie said, remembering to use her lower-class accent. If Mirta learned of her patrician background, there would be no escape until a hefty ransom was paid. "The records I found'll convict the Forsts, but all I have on you was that the people actually transportin' the stolen Gens also work for you sometimes. I'm pretty sure you had three or four similar schemes goin' with other Genfarms, 'cause more Gens were stolen than the Forsts ever got, but I can't prove it. If no more Gens are stolen, General Morlin'll be satisfied with the Forsts. I doubt he'll even bother with your teamsters." Eskalie could zlin Mirta wavering for a moment, but then the resolution returned.
"Sorry, girl," she said, moving the blade just a little. "You could be right, but I ain't gonna take the chance. You ain't gittin' near the General with them books you stole."
"I already have," Eskalie said softly. As Mirta froze in disbelief, she continued. "Zlin my saddlebags. Everythin' I found, and my full report, are already in General Morlin's tentacles. Whatever he decides to do with 'em, murderin' me won't stop it."
Mirta zlinned the saddlebags, and discovered that they contained only clothing. Her sudden anger and fear made Eskalie wonder whether the scheme would backfire; she would be just as dead if Mirta murdered her for revenge.
But then Sesfin intervened. "Eskalie's right. If you let her go, General Morlin prob'ly won't look too hard for you. You may have to leave town for a few months, but it'll blow over soon enough. But if you murder his niece...well, I 'spect you'd be better off headin' for the border and askin' the Wild Gens for mercy; you'd be more likely to get it."
Mirta snorted in contempt. "Don't give me that nonsense; I ain't stupid. She ain't no high-class General's niece!"
"I'm afraid I am," Eskalie said with a sigh, abandoning her lower-class accent. "I use 'Morrow' as a professional pseudonym, but Morlin is my real last name. The General is my uncle, and Sesfin's right, he isn't likely to overlook it if you murder me."
Eskalie felt Mirta zlinning her, absorbing the truth of what she said. "But you don't have to worry about that," Califf pointed out matter-of-factly. "Because I promise you, unto Dar, if you do harm Eskalie, you won't live long enough to face her uncle."
It was a pledge no Householder would break, and Mirta was well aware that the perverts had the means to carry it out. If she murdered Eskalie and somehow managed to evade Califf and his trained Gen today, they would hunt her down, even if she moved to Gulf Territory. Householders seldom, if ever, bothered to bring their complaints before the highly anti-Householding legal system. There would be no trial, no defense that she could offer, no judge to bribe; just another body in an ally. Her nager crumpled with despair.
With a cry, Mirta shoved Eskalie into Tallin's arms, and burst past the Gen before it could stop her, heading towards town at top speed. At the rate the woman was augmenting, she would have to move her kill up at least a day.
But Eskalie had more important things to worry about. Tallin had caught her, one overly muscled arm encircling her waist. The Gen steadied her, its nager as calm and self-assured as when it had opened the Forst Genfarm's safe--or on the return trip, when it faced Yosum.
Eskalie stood very still, her heart pounding unevenly. The killer Gen couldn't have lived to such a ripe old age, even in a Householding, without learning to judge when a Sime was in need. Any move she made might be misinterpreted as an attack--and she knew too well how the Gen responded to attacking Simes.
She forced herself to breathe, her muscles to relax. Horses and dogs could tell when a person was afraid, even though they couldn't zlin, and once they went feral, they would go after anyone who showed fear. The only way to deal with such creatures was by a show of firm but nonthreatening authority. Gens were a lot smarter than horses and dogs, but she could hope that the same principles applied.
As casually as she could, she tried to edge sideways, out of the Gen's clutches.
Equally casually, Tallin tightened its grip on her waist, preventing her escape, then rested a finger lightly on the new bruise on her right hand, which she had gotten when Lorel attacked her. The Gen's cool touch felt good, but Eskalie was horribly aware of how close those deadly fingers were to her vulnerable laterals, and how incapable her useless handling tentacles were of protecting them.
"You shouldn't be allowed out without a physician," Tallin scolded gently, its powerful nager a strange mixture of exasperation and concern.
"She's hurt herself again?" Califf asked, his handsome face intent with concern.
"Just a bruise," the Gen reported, "but it's a nasty one."
"It certainly is," Califf agreed after inspecting it. "Did Mirta Dulkar do that?"
"No," said Eskalie, suddenly irritated at the pervert's solicitousness. "It was your overeager friend Lorel, trying to keep me from seeing the General. Now if you don't mind, I'm in a hurry to get back to town." Unfortunately, Califf didn't take the hint and call off his Gen. Instead, he said, "You'd be miserable, going so far in your condition. Father's previous offer is still good. Why wait when you don't have to?"
Eskalie scowled. "Why won't you just leave me alone?"
"We can't do that," Califf said obstinately. "Dar risked a great deal to uncover the Gen-pilfering ring, and for rather less than our usual fee. Our major profit comes from gaining the trust and respect of the Territory's most influential military leader. The Gen restraints killhouses offer are often poorly designed and in worse condition. If you die or are permanently crippled because you were hurt while working undercover at our request, how long will we keep your uncle's goodwill?"
"I am not just my uncle's niece!" Eskalie shouted. "I am a adult in my own right, fully capable of deciding my own future. I told you I don't want or require your help--or your vicious Gen's, either."
"You're afraid of him!" Califf sounded astonished, as if it had never occurred to him that she might feel nervous around his killer Gen.
"What?" Tallin was equally amazed. The Gen put a large hand on each of her shoulders and turned her to face it. "Eskalie, I'm hardly going to murder you after all the trouble I went through trying to keep you alive! You have nothing to fear from me. Zlin the truth of that!"
The Gen's nager reached out, surrounding Eskalie with infinite reassurance and blurring her ability to think. She could zlin through the outer fog to the sincerity radiating from the glowing core beneath. It would be so easy, and so pleasant, to reach out and warm herself at that blazing furnace...
Her laterals peeked eagerly out of their sheaths, but she hesitated. There were two disturbances in the bright mist which surrounded her. One was Califf's wierd imitation-Gen nager, which somehow meshed with Tallin's in a way that reinforced the Gen's attraction. The other was Sesfin, who was struggling to control his growing alarm--and his own need--as he tried to understand what was happening.
She didn't dare take Tallin, she reminded herself, compelling as the Gen was. Yosum's death was indelibly etched onto her memory. However, now that she was hyperconscious and unable to see his tentacles, Califf's Gen imitation was even more convincing than before. Even knowing that he was Sime didn't keep it from being attractive. She concentrated on the attraction, trying to shift her attention away from Tallin before she fixed on the Gen irrevocably.
In response, Califf held out his hands and changed his Gen projection, actively provoking her to attack him. At the same time, Tallin's nager shifted, becoming less compelling as he reinforced his owner's effort. Underneath Califf's temptation Eskalie could feel his growing smugness, and Sesfin's sudden revulsion at the thought of witnissing her seduction into the Householdings' perversion.
With a cry, Eskalie wrenched herself free of Tallin's loosening grasp and threw herself into the safety of Sesfin's arms. He held her as she doubled over with the pain of denial, and even though his need aggravated her own, his honest concern for her as an individual was a welcome change from Califf's worries about her uncle and Tallin's slick seduction.
"Get out of here, pervert," Sesfin ordered protectively. "And take your Gen with you. If General Morlin wants your kind around, that's fine, but we don't."
Califf zlinned their determination, and finally accepted defeat. "Very well," he said, as he and Tallin returned to their horses. "But Eskalie," he continued when he had mounted, "if you develop any complications from your injuries, or from your kill, don't hesitate to ask us for help." He loosened the reins, and the gray sprang forward at an easy canter, Tallin on the chestnut running close behind.
When the Householders could no longer be zlinned, Sesfin turned to Eskalie and asked, "How'd you get involved with them perverts, anyway? All I know is, they came by, askin' for you and sayin' you were in big trouble. I thought you were workin' for your uncle the General?"
Eskalie sighed. "It's a long story, and I'm in no mood to tell it just now. Can I wait and tell you and Amsil together this evening?"
Sesfin was immediately contrite. "Sure, Eskalie. It can wait 'till after your kill. Tell you what," he said, as he zlinned her condition more closely, "I had the mornin' free, so I got my Gen early this month. The drugs'll have worn off by now, so it'll be good and frisky. I'll sign it over to you, so's you won't have to deal with Pen hassles, and get another one for me. That Pen clerk Kirra owes me one; she won't mind fixin' the papers, since your entitled to a kill anyway."
"That's sweet of you, Sesfin," Eskalie said, warmed by his concern. "I want this kill to be as special as what comes after."
Sesfin met her gaze with an embarrassed but cocky grin. "I'm not gonna argue with that!" He bent forward to kiss her lingeringly on the lips.
Neither of them was capable of sexual desire just then, but it was a gesture of human warmth and caring nonetheless, and a promise of things to come.
When he straightened, Eskalie tenderly pushed an errant lock of hair out of his eyes with one handling tentacle, then refocused on more practical concerns. She turned to look at Mirta Dulkar's horse, which was now a good twenty feet from the road, still tearing up the grass as fast as it could. "Well, it's not much of a mount," she said dubiously, "but it'll have to do."
"Oh, no!" said Sesfin, backing hastily away. "I'm not gettin' on one of them monsters again! My own feet'll take me back to town fast enough."
"Suit yourself," Eskalie said, plucking a flexible, arm's length branch from a convenient bush and stripping off the side branchs and all but a tuft of leaves at the very end. Putting her makeshift switch under her left arm, she walked over to the horse and caught the reins.
Irritated at having its snack interrupted, the ill-mannered beast tried to bite, until its tender nose connected solidly with Eskalie's fist. Taken aback, it paused to reconsider. Eskalie used the respite to gather the reins and mount.
The horse sidled sideways, only to have a boot heel thud into its ribs. Eskalie turned it towards the road, and it promptly balked. Swearing, she pulled tightly on one rein, throwing the animal off balance and forcing it to turn in a tight circle. When it was once again facing the road, she urged it forward with both heels, giving it a solid thwack on the rump with her switch for good measure.
Startled by the noise of the rustling leaves, the horse surged forward.
When they reached the road, and Eskalie turned it towards town, it tried to buck. However, the reins were too short for it to get its head down, and the attempt earned it another thwack with the switch. It laid its ears back and switched its tail in frustration, then gave up and began to trot obediently towards Torman.
Eskalie waved a tentacle smugly at the gaping Sesfin as they went by, reflecting, At least there are some animals I can handle!
Eskalie rounded the last hill and entered Torman proper. She was more than ready to celebrate the successful conclusion of her biggest case to date, and the proof it offered that she was good enough at her chosen profession to make a living at it. Eskalie the debutante was gone forever.
Of course, there would be changes in the weeks ahead. Her cover identity as "Eskalie Morrow" was no longer useful; Mirta Dulkar would spread the news of her parantage far and wide. However, properly handled, that did not have to be a disaster. There were plenty of people who would pay extra for the snob appeal of having a Morlin personally handle their cases. It was time to use her identity to expand her options, instead of limit them.
The bonus her uncle had given her was generous, and the reputation that would come once her role in solving the Gen thefts was known was even more valuable. It would bring more cases, and put Kirlin Security back on a sound financial footing. Then there would be money left over for luxuries: clothing which wasn't bought from the second-hand dealers, a larger office in a better part of town, and eventually...
Eskalie realized that she had guided her sorry mount to the outskirts of the Gen Market. If things went well, someday she would be coming here as a customer, not a security guard. At the thought, her laterals peeked out of their sheaths, dripping ronaplin.
She might choose a Wild Gen, with a belligerent nager laced with fear. Or maybe a young one caught running for the border, with a strong field which would shatter in delicious panic when she took it to a killhouse. And afterwards, Sesfin would be waiting for her, post from his own kill.
She paused just outside the market's entrance, and slowly surveyed the displays, savoring the fantasy. There were so many Gens to choose from.
But none of them had a nager that zlinned like the sun shining through fog.
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