The Dilemma of the Doubtful Document
Mary Lou Mendum
Published as a part of A Companion In Zeor #13
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Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.
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"Officer, could you tell me where the cloth merchants have their booths?"
"Of course," Eskalie Morlin said. She pointed with one handling tentacle across the crowded expanse of well-trampled earth which constituted the Tormin Fall Market. "They are over there, just beyond the Gens."
The woman's three-year-old daughter peeked out from behind her mother's skirt, staring wide-eyed at Eskalie's crisp uniform. The little girl's two older brothers were more enthralled by the heavy, military-style whip wrapped around Eskalie's waist. Then the younger boy got in his brother's way, and was slapped for his impudence. As the two boys began to shove each other, the baby in the woman's arms woke up and emitted an outraged wail.
"Shen!" the woman said, bouncing the infant in a futile attempt to quiet its howls. "Josh, you stop hitting your little brother and behave right now!" she ordered her eldest, without any greater success.
"I don't wanna buy stupid cloth." Josh complained. "Cloth is boring. I wanna see something exciting." He grabbed onto one of his mother's handling tentacles and tried to pull her in the direction opposite the clothing stalls. "I wanna see the bear. Bears are dangerous. They can rip you apart with one swipe of their claws!" He used his free hand to demonstrate, casting his brother in the role of the victim. The younger lad's outraged wail echoed through the market.
Filled with pride in her newfound (if strictly temporary) role as a keeper of the peace, Eskalie bent over to address the rebellious youngster. "Josh, did you know that the Naifels Genfarm display over that way has a Giant Killer Gen?" she asked, pointing across the wide marketplace to a tent on the edge of the Gen section--and not incidentally, right next to the first of the cloth merchants.
"Killer Gens are lots more dangerous than bears," she continued confidentially, as Josh's eyes widened with delighted anticipation. "Why, a Killer Gen can dispatch a full-grown Sime with one snap of its nager!"
Privately, Eskalie doubted that Duffy Naifels' "Killer Gen" could dispatch one of the flies which swarmed over its filthy hide, much less a Sime. Unlike the gullible audience which crowded around its cage, she had actually met the real thing, and was thus in a position to know the difference.
She suspected that Naifels' Gen was a breeder grown too old, put on display in the hopes that some daredevil would pay a premium price to kill the "dangerous Gen." And the greedy fraud might succeed in that, even though the Gen's field isn't particularly strong or interesting, and it looks like the poor thing hasn't had a good meal in months.
But then, most of the Naifels Gens looked underfed this year. Eskalie had heard that the wheat crop in his part of the Territory had been poor, due to a combination of bad farming practices, drought, and an especially virulent strain of rust.
"Let's go see the Killer Gen, Mommy!" the boy demanded, pulling his mother towards the promised attraction. His two younger siblings added their enthusiastic endorsement of this plan.
With a hasty smile of thanks for Eskalie, the harried mother herded her brood in the proper direction.
Eskalie nodded to herself in brisk satisfaction, then continued her rounds through the marketplace, keeping her eyes peeled for pickpockets, obstreperous drunks, straying animals, and other potential threats to the public welfare. She reveled in the attention her uniform was receiving: people actually noticed her as she walked by. It was a new experience for Eskalie, since her face, figure, and nager were so completely average that most people were unable to remember her name five minutes after an introduction.
Annoying as it might be, her anonymous appearance had proved to be an asset in her chosen profession as the junior member of Kirlin Security and Investigations. She had done very well by her partners, Amsil Kirlin and her younger brother Sesfin, in the seven months she had worked for them. They had shared a lot of hard work, and some real triumphs. The most notable of these had been Eskalie's unveiling of a Border Patrol corporal who was quietly arranging for a good portion of the military's Gen supply to be sold to various crooked Gendealers. The pilferage had forced the military to confiscate Gens from the civilian supply when Wild Gens had attacked from across the Border the previous summer, causing shortages in Pens across half the Territory.
The reputation Eskalie had gained by solving that case had proved profitable for both herself and Kirlin Security. Amsil had mentioned that if the increased caseload continued, the agency might even be able to rent a suite big enough for each of them to have a private office.
It was, perhaps, a strange measure of success for someone of Eskalie's lineage. She had been raised in the quiet of Zarokka City's wealthiest neighborhood, except for summers, when her family had retired to their country estate. She had been provided with every luxury money could buy, educated in the finest schools, and carefully groomed to take over the family business: the most profitable, stable bank in the Territory. She had not been able to face a future trapped behind an office desk, though, no matter how artistically carved. Shortly after her changeover, she had run away from home for a life of adventure.
"Get moving or I'll bash your stupid head in, you shedoni-doomed son of a lorsh!" a voice roared from the alley behind the Broken Whip saloon. Eskalie detoured to investigate, but it was only a carter struggling with a stubborn mule. His gutter language marked him as a member of the lower classes more surely than his ragged clothing. Eskalie's father would never have allowed himself to spout obscenities at a dumb animal. With a shrug, she returned to her rounds and her thoughts.
The life she'd found in Tormin had been both more and less than she had expected. It had been harder than she'd anticipated to make her way in the world without the protection of her family's name and money. She had been cold and tired frequently, and had come closer to death than she cared to remember on other occasions. However, the compensations had been equally unexpected: high adventure, good friends, and above all, the knowledge that she had changed the world for the better.
One of the most personally satisfying changes she had made was at her former alma mater, the prestigious Sommerin Academy. In the course of investigating a mysterious series of thefts, she had discovered that the school was selling certain former students which had established to torture-oriented killhouses, rather than taking them to the Border as promised to--and paid for by--the Gens' parents. Eskalie felt a pang of bittersweet sorrow at the memory of the end of that case: the sight of her former best friend Helka heading up the trail to Gen Territory.
Their growing reputation had allowed the three members of Kirlin Security to land their current lucrative contract with the Tormin City Council, as temporary peacekeepers during the chaos of the Fall Fair. This was the city's busiest event of the year: a week of madness when traders from all over the Territory came to exchange their goods. The day before, there had even been a caravan of Householders. They had just made the dangerous journey across the lands of the Wild Gens to bring luxury goods from Gulf Territory. Fortunately, they had only stayed for one day, just long enough to sell some of their goods to traders and exchange others with their fellow Householders.
It's just as well that the perverts didn't linger for this last day of the Fair. The town's famous Gen Market and the two blocks of saloons and killhouses adjoining it were doing a brisk business as the traders celebrated their profits, and even with the extra tentacles, Sheriff Russ and his two permanent deputies were hard put to maintain order. This was the first year Kirlin Security had been picked for the prestigious assignment, and Eskalie was determined that her section of the Market would remain free of unpleasant incidents.
Another flare of outraged anger caught her attention, but this time, it had the "mixed" flavor of several different nagers. She hurried around the intervening carpenter's booth to discover the source of the disturbance in the ambient. When she did, she was hard put to suppress a groan.
What was that I was thinking about the joys of the adventurous life?
Parked in the middle of the street was a large wagon piled with choice goods: fine cloth in bright patterns, farming implements made of scarce metal, several bags of seed wheat, and a heavy ironwood strongbox, reinforced by iron bands and secured by a padlock formidable enough to discourage even professional thieves.
Standing beside the sleek, well-fed carthorses was a young man who in himself would discourage any sane individual from trying to lay a tentacle on the tempting goods. Eskalie recognized him at once: Califf, the young leader of Householding Dar, specialists in the martial arts, particularly hand-to-hand combat. He was tall, with shining brown hair and the good teeth which only came with proper nutrition both before and after changeover. His nager zlinned like a slightly peculiar Sime today, but Eskalie knew that he could project an equally almost-convincing Gen imitation whenever he wished. He wore the blue-green and gray livery of his House with obvious pride.
Confronting the pervert was another young man, radiating the arrogant confidence of the well-born. He was a handsome fellow with long, curly blond hair. His slender body was dressed in the latest fashion from Capitol: an intricately embroidered red and yellow vest over a cream shirt, with tightly tailored black pants and boots of gleaming imported leather.
What's a gay bird like that doing in a Border town like Tormin?
The dandy waved a piece of paper in Califf's face as he insisted, "I've already wasted a day more than I should have on this errand, thanks to my horse's decision to throw a shoe. I'm not going to wait any longer. The wagon and goods are mine, by order of the court. Surrender them immediately or I will be forced to resort to...more strenuous measures. You might not survive that." The four liveried servants behind him grinned and laid casual hands on the butts of their whips.
"If you allow your...associates to attack us," Califf said quietly, "I assure you that you, at least, won't survive the encounter."
The servants chuckled loudly, making their skepticism of the Householder's threat quite clear. It was obvious that they were looking forward to the chance to rough up a pervert, and figured that their numbers and weapons tilted the odds in their favor despite Califf's Dar training.
However, the odds were much less one-sided than they believed. Sitting on the wagon's seat, holding the reins while it watched the situation alertly, was a male Gen with absurdly distinguished streaks of gray accenting its brown hair at each temple. The advanced age that this implied was itself a powerful warning to the knowledgeable, since most Gens were killed shortly after establishment. At its belt hung an innocent-appearing wooden flute case. The creature actually could play the flute inside quite well, Eskalie knew. It was equally adept with the set of lockpicks stored alongside the instrument, the thin wires hidden from casual zlinning by their closeness to the larger metal flute.
Its odd appearance and dress weren't the Gen's most distinctive feature, however. The core of its powerful nager pulsed seductively, obscured by a haze of shallower currents, like the morning sun viewed through a fog bank. As the four servants took a step closer to Califf, the Gen's nager hardened into a bright, deadly warning. It secured the reins by wrapping them around the brake, then scooted to the edge of the seat, ready to leap to its master's rescue.
Eskalie couldn't allow that. For unlike Duffy Naifels' pathetic display, Califf's pet Tallin was a real Giant Killer Gen. She still had frequent nightmares from the past summer, when she had zlinned it lure a Sime into attacking it, and then crush his laterals and discard the lifeless corpse. She hadn't reported the incident for what had seemed like sufficient reasons, in part because she had become convinced that the Gen wouldn't attack a Sime who wasn't a direct threat to itself or its House.
But if attacking the Chief Pervert isn't a threat to Dar, what is? she thought, hurriedly straightening her jacket. Califf had told her that the Gen had sired him, and there were few forces in nature more formidable than an animal protecting its young. She adjusted her hat to the regulation angle, then strode towards the confrontation, radiating as much confident authority as she could.
"What's going on here?" she demanded.
As she had hoped, the four servants backed off at the sight of her uniform. Califf, who had been poised to defend himself, quelled the slight augmentation he had been maintaining. His eyes widened as he recognized Eskalie, and a thread of cautious optimism wound through his nager. He settled back on his heels, obviously willing to let her handle the situation if she could. The Killer Gen's tension also subsided as it saw the decreased threat, although it continued to watch the four Simes alertly.
So far, so good, Eskalie thought.
The blond dandy turned to her, radiating annoyance, then saw her uniform and gave a charming smile.
"Officer, I'm glad to see you," he said with the condescending tone of an aristocrat addressing a member of the lower classes. "I'm Quildon Whilly, son of Keju Whilly, of the Nivet Territory Council."
"Pleased to meet you, Quildon," Eskalie said mildly, in tones as cultured as his own. "I'm Eskalie Morlin, daughter of Rossil and Gretta Morlin, owners of Morlin Bank and Trust in Zarokka City."
If the situation had been less tense, Eskalie would have laughed aloud at the sudden, ill-concealed dismay in Quildon's nager. He had obviously expected her to be over awed at being in the presence of such an exalted and wealthy personage as himself. It was equally obvious that he wasn't sure how to treat a police officer whose parents had enough wealth to buy the Territory government his father helped run...and who frequently did just that.
Eskalie didn't give him enough time to recover. "Now that we've introduced ourselves, perhaps you would explain why you are standing in the middle of the street arguing with this...Householder?"
Quildon's fair skin flushed at the implication that he'd been caught slumming, but he radiated self-righteous conviction. "I am here on my father's business, while he tours West Nivet with the rest of the Council," the young man announced grandly. "Sectuib Califf owes my father a substantial debt, and has refused to pay it. Therefore, I am confiscating his wagonload of goods as authorized by this court order." He handed her the paper he had been waving at Califf.
Eskalie took the document and read it carefully. "This appears to be in order," she said. "However, I admit to some curiosity." She turned to the Householder, who was fairly bursting with unvoiced outrage. "Sectuib Califf, the sum mentioned here is less than the worth of one of your saddle horses. Why have you refused to pay it?"
"Because Dar owes Councilman Whilly nothing," Califf declared forcefully, his nager reflecting his absolute belief in what he was saying. "Even if we did require a loan, we would hardly ask Keju Whilly. This so-called 'debt' is a figment of the gentleman's imagination."
"It does seem a bit unlikely," Eskalie told Quildon. "Your father has a well-deserved reputation as the most anti-Householding member of the Nivet Council." Although there's some truth to that old adage that "politics makes strange bedfellows," she mused, and Whilly's principles are nothing if not flexible, particularly where money is involved. Her parents made use of this trait even as they despised its owner for his lack of anything resembling ethics.
Quildon flicked an indignant tentacle at the court order. "Would a judge have granted that order if the debt weren't legitimate?" he asked rhetorically.
"Judge Lighs would order his own mother executed by attrition if you crossed his tentacles with enough gold, and you know it as well as I do," Eskalie retorted. "I expect he'd be content with silver if the order happened to be detrimental to Householders. He feels even more strongly on that score then your father. Have you any other documentation of this debt with you?"
"As a matter of fact, I do," Quildon announced. He pulled another paper from the inside pocket of his embroidered vest and handed it to her with a contemptuous toss of his golden curls. He called her attention to the top of the page with a casual flick of one handling tentacle. "Do you doubt the records of your own parents' bank?"
The paper did, indeed, have the elaborate letterhead of Morlin Bank and Trust. Just to be sure, Eskalie held it up to the light, but the watermark was equally authentic. Of course, paper could be stolen, or the printer bribed to make a few extra sheets for a forger. It wouldn't be the first time.
The text documented that on a certain day, some fifteen months before, a sum of money had been withdrawn from Keju Whilly's account at the Morlin Bank and presented as cash to Sectuib Nilba ambrov Dar, said sum to be repaid with a usurious amount of interest within one year. The phrasing was correct, and the handwriting resembled that of her parents' junior clerk, Jan Yarnan. The document was signed by the principals, and witnessed by Yarnan.
"This seems to be genuine," Eskalie admitted. The nagers of Quildon and his servants fairly glowed with vindicated satisfaction, while Califf and his Gen tensed, ready to defend themselves. "Is this your father's signature?"
"It is," Quildon affirmed.
"And what about this one?" Eskalie turned to Califf, indicating Sectuib Nilba's scrawl with one handling tentacle. "Look at it closely." She zlinned him openly for the faintest hint of intent to deceive.
Califf studied the signature, then shrugged. "I can't say. It could be my mother's handwriting, if she was in a great hurry..."
"But any halfway competent forger could come that close." Eskalie sighed. "Well, was she traveling outside of the Householding at the time?"
"Yes," the young Sectuib admitted. "She was traveling to Householding Sorn. While she was there, Sorn was attacked by a mob, and she was murdered trying to get the children to safety."
"And Sorn just happens to be on the other side of Zarokka City," Eskalie pointed out. "What makes you so sure she didn't borrow the money, and just failed to tell anyone about it before she died?"
"From Councilman Whilly?"
Eskalie groaned. "Your mother is dead, and his father," she nodded at Quildon, "is hardly more accessible. It appears that our only recourse is to consult the third witness." She tapped Jan Yarnan's signature. "Until that confirmation arrives, I can't in conscience allow either one of you to possess the disputed goods. They can be stored in the police barn for safekeeping."
"I would have to insist that a comprehensive inventory be taken. Some of the items in the strongbox belonged to my mother, and I do not want them to be damaged or lost."
"There will be an inventory," Eskalie promised. "The goods will be perfectly safe until their proper disposition can be determined."
"But it will take at least a week to get an answer from Zarokka!" Quildon objected.
"True," Eskalie agreed. "If you or the Householder don't wish to stay in Tormin so long, I am sure arrangements can be made to ship the goods to wherever the proper owner desires."
"It's ridiculous to have to wait so long to take possession of what's already been legally ruled as mine," the young gentleman fumed. "Besides," and his nager darkened with an ugly desire for revenge, "the pervert threatened to murder me. That sort of intimidation is against the law, and I'm pressing charges." Quildon cast a sideways glance at Califf. "Unless, of course, he apologizes and surrenders the goods at once."
The mulish set to the Householder's mouth, matched by the stubborn determination in his nager, showed more eloquently than any words exactly what Califf thought of his accuser's suggestion. His Gen's growing fury was a more immediate cause for alarm.
"I am sure that the Tormin court will be happy to hear your complaint against Sectuib Califf when the issue of this alleged debt has been settled," Eskalie assured Quildon. And if Califf has half a brain, that Gen of his won't be present when the case is heard.
"That's not good enough," Quildon declared. "By then, this pervert will be behind the walls of his Householding, and it would take half the Army to get him out again. As an officer of the law, I demand that you arrest him now!"
The Killer Gen's powerful nager exploded with the desperate, deadly viciousness of a cornered animal. Eskalie was two days before turnover, and Califf was between her and Tallin. Nevertheless, it felt like she had been drenched with a bucket of ice water, and she gasped and doubled over. Two of the servants had the misfortune to be in need, and took involuntary steps in the Gen's direction before Quildon waved them back. The young dandy was much less affected by Tallin's outburst than Eskalie, even though he was past turnover.
But then, she thought a bit contemptuously, judging by that dissipated edge to his nager, he probably tortures his Gens before killing.
Califf, too, was more used to tolerating Gen outbursts than the average Sime. His nager twisted strangely, somehow deflecting the brunt of the assault, and he turned and snapped a brief command at Tallin.
The Gen's nager seemed to collapse into itself for a moment, then the obscuring wisps of fog returned, shielding the Simes from the worst effects of the chaos beneath. Eskalie could zlin how tenuous Califf's control of the Gen was, though, and she dreaded the inevitable next eruption.
For there was no way that she could ignore Quildon's charges, or even postpone acting on them. She had witnessed Califf's threat to murder the young aristocrat, and she of all people knew how likely it was that the Householder (or his Gen) would have succeeded in making good on that threat. While it was true that Quildon had threatened Califf first, no jury was likely to hold that against him, once they learned that he had been attempting to serve a confiscation order on the Householder's property, however dubious its origin.
Quildon grinned maliciously, openly enjoying his chance to force her to act against the perverts she had previously been supporting. And all to protect his miserable hide, if only he knew...
However, Eskalie wasn't quite ready to give up. "If you insist on pressing charges," she said slowly, "then in honor, I must make the arrest." If that Gen doesn't kill me for trying. "But before you decide, you should consider this. Your case against the Householder depends on the word from Zarokka about your claim to his goods. If the debt is not valid, then Sectuib Califf was merely defending his goods against a thief. He could then bring charges against you for false imprisonment."
"I doubt the pervert would be so foolish as to do that, even if he were in a position--or should I say, condition--to do so." Quildon flicked a tentacle in a gesture of dismissal.
The young fashion plate's suicidal tendencies were beginning to irritate Eskalie. Especially since he seems determined to take me with him, she amended the observation silently, as the obscuring haze of Tallin's nager thinned dangerously. So far, Califf's command seemed to be holding the Gen in check, but if its training broke and it went rogue, she doubted that it would spare her because she was simply doing her duty. Not if that duty includes potential harm to its owner.
"I can't speak for Capitol," she told Quildon, "but in this town, we don't allow prisoners to murder their fellows. Not even when those fellows are Householders." The Gen's tension eased a fraction, much to Eskalie's relief.
The young aristocrat shrugged, then waved a dismissive tentacle. "That just leaves more sport in the execution cage, when he's found guilty of threatening an innocent citizen. Now stop stalling and do your duty, "Officer" Morlin! I want to see that pervert behind bars."
Shen, Eskalie thought desperately. She had learned some rough-and-tumble fighting skills from her two colleagues, but she had seen Dar fighters in action.. She was hopelessly outclassed, even if Tallin could be persuaded not to leap to its owner's defense.
However, when she turned to the Householder, he only shrugged and said, "If I have to sit in jail for a few days to get this straightened out peacefully, I will." A storm of unvoiced protest erupted from the Gen. As the Simes winced, Califf hastily added, "Provided, of course, that you are correct about the sheriff's willingness and ability to maintain order among his...involuntary guests."
"Sectuib Califf, I give you my personal assurance as a Morlin that you will leave the Tormin jail as alive and uninjured as when you entered it." It was a safe enough promise: the attrition cages were in the middle of the market square.
The Householder zlinned her deeply, weighing her promise, then nodded. "Very well, then. Shall we go? Father, bring the wagon."
Eskalie held her breath, but the Killer Gen reluctantly settled back on the wagon seat and reached for the reins. It was obviously very unhappy with its owner's decision, but it wasn't actively rebelling--yet.
Thank goodness there's one Sime who can make that Gen obey, she thought, as she led the way down the street. I'd hate to have to try it myself.
Eskalie was relieved that the argument had been settled, albeit temporarily, without any overt violence to spoil her record. However, the whole situation was wrong, making her tentacles itch. The amount of money under dispute, while large enough to fund Kirlin Security for half a year, was small change to both Whilly and Householding Dar. She could understand Whilly sending a lawyer to collect such a debt, but not this personal attention from his son. Califf, too, was far more indignant about the confiscation order than the loss would justify. It made her wonder if there was bad blood between the two.
It was almost a parade: Eskalie and Califf in the lead, followed by Tallin driving the wagon, with Quildon strolling along behind, sizing up its contents. The four liveried servants brought up the rear, keeping a suspicious eye out for pickpockets, stray manure, chamberpots being emptied from second-floor windows, and other threats to their master's well-being.
Eskalie detoured around as much of the crowded marketplace as she could, but they had still collected more than one curious stare by the time they reached the Tormin Jail. This was a large but elderly stone building which had started its life as the town Pen, before the city had outgrown it. The large holding pens in the eastern wing had been converted into a stable, and the former killrooms in the west wing had been outfitted with bars and locks capable of confining Simes. The offices and waiting area in the main part of the building still served the same function for Sheriff Russ and his two permanent deputies, Vill and Norra. Norra also functioned as the jailer.
As Eskalie's procession entered the courtyard, the sheriff himself came out to meet them. He was old for the position, over ten years past changeover. However, despite the sprinkle of white hairs among the black ones, his vision was still keen, and he handled his whip with the expertise of a Freeband Raider. His nager displayed open curiosity--and relief.
To find the cause of the relief, Eskalie didn't have to zlin any further then the man following Russ. The jewel merchant Mon Ergest was one of Tormin's wealthiest and least beloved citizens. He was a twisted, embittered old miser, childless since losing his one daughter to establishment three years before. His main joys in life were getting the best of a bargain with a fellow merchant and arguing with anyone who would speak to him: neighbors, colleagues, servants, and the few remaining townspeople desperate enough to pretend friendship in hopes of inheriting part of his considerable estate when he died. The miser didn't look happy at having his conversation with the sheriff interrupted.
He must be venting his spleen against the quality of Anna's tapers again today, Eskalie deduced, after a glance at the half dozen yellow candles clutched in the man's right handling tentacles. If he wants a brighter light for reading, why the blazing shen doesn't he buy beeswax instead of tallow? He can certainly afford the extra expense.
As a public official, Russ had to endure Ergest's tirades as part of his job. However, he was quite willing to delay a discussion of candles until after he had tended to more pressing official business. There was always the slim chance that the jewel merchant would get bored and leave.
"What do you have here?" the sheriff asked Eskalie hopefully.
Quildon opened his mouth to answer, but Eskalie beat him to it. She briefly introduced the principals and outlined their disagreement over the proper ownership of the wagonload of goods, the resulting exchange of threats, and her proposed solution.
Under other circumstances, Russ might have balked at the paperwork involved in sending an inquiry all the way to Zarokka, simply to confirm the honestly asserted claim of such a well-connected young man to a pervert's goods. However, the only viable alternative was to award the wagonload of goods to Quildon on the spot. The easy victory might well result in the young man dropping his charge of assault, since pursuing it would require him to remain in Tormin until the case could be heard by the circuit judge. Unfortunately, settling Quildon's complaint would free the sheriff himself to listen to Ergest's.
It took Russ less than five seconds to decide that it was his personal responsibility to write the inquiry to Zarokka on the legitimacy of the alleged debt, directly after he had seen Califf settled into his new accommodations.
"But I can't give him a private cell," the sheriff maintained, when Eskalie explained the promise she had made. "With the Fall Market and all, we haven't got an empty one."
The flare of fear in Tallin's field was moderated by the obscuring surface layers of the Gen's complex nager, but it was still strong enough to set Eskalie's teeth on edge, and to attract Mon Ergest's interested attention.
"What about putting him with those two kids Sesfin brought in for snatching purses?" Eskalie suggested hastily. The arrest had won the detective's partner an accolade from the sheriff, since the two were just about the right age for changeover. If they were unable to pay their fines--and the sum was thirty each--they would remain in prison until they reached adulthood. If they changed over, well and good: they would be indentured to some citizen for the price of their fine. If one happened to establish, though, Sheriff Russ would have a Prime Kill to sell or enjoy, as it suited him.
"I suppose he could stay with them," Russ agreed. "He'd have to share a cot, though; there's only room for two in that cell."
Califf shrugged. "I can manage," he said, with the gracious air of an aristocrat condescending to accept the best accommodations available in a poverty-stricken village.
The sheriff gave him a startled look, then hollered for Norra. When the jailer arrived, he nodded at the Householder. "I've got a customer for you," he explained. "Put him in that cell by the back door, with the kids."
Norra looked a little surprised by her boss's choice of cell, but beckoned for Califf to accompany her. The Householder obeyed, Tallin following as if glued to its master's side.
"Hey, you can't bring that fancy Gen along," the jailer objected. "We don't have the budget to feed it. If you need a kill while you're here, you'll be provided with one from the Pen, like everybody else."
"If it is a matter of cost..." Califf began.
"No special privileges, pervert," Russ decided. He flared the resentment any lower-class Sime would feel, confronted by a socially inferior pervert who could easily afford the upkeep and taxes on a premium pet Gen.
The Householder zlinned the sheriff carefully, but there was no hint of flexibility in the older Sime's nager. With a resigned sigh, Califf murmured a soft order to his Gen.
Reeking of reluctance, Tallin halted, watching as its owner followed Norra into the building. The foggy veneer of calm on the surface of the Gen's nager thinned unexpectedly in places, allowing tantalizing hints of the deep-seated worry, fear and anger underneath to escape.
Mon Ergest's laterals emerged from their sheaths as he zlinned the Gen. "Since this Gen's owner has abandoned it," he announced, "I claim it as salvage."
Tallin's head whipped around, and it focused on the jewel merchant with an almost predatory intensity. It started walking towards Ergest, stepping lightly as a cat stalking a careless mouse.
"No!" Eskalie ordered sharply.
She managed not to flinch too obviously as the Killer Gen paused to look at her, its outrage at the unexpected command plain to zlin. It was obvious to Eskalie that it was itching for an excuse to lash out at someone, and it didn't particularly care who got hurt in the process.
"Behave yourself," she told it, in the firm and confident tone of voice she reserved for disobedient animals.
She held her breath as Tallin considered, wondering if she would become the Gen's next victim. However, with Califf gone, she was now the only Sime present who was familiar to it. In the end, the habit of taking orders from Simes won, and it backed down--though not with the speed and precision with which it had obeyed Califf.
With the immediate danger past, Eskalie concentrated on preventing a reoccurrence. "I'm afraid that it isn't possible for you to claim this Gen," she explained to Ergest. "Tallin belongs to the Householding proper, not to any individual person, and it isn't part of the disputed shipment of goods." She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry with nervousness, and continued, "I'll take it back to Sommerin tomorrow."
The Killer Gen looked at her sharply, but it didn't seem inclined to object.
"That seem a reasonable solution." Sheriff Russ nodded in agreement. "Why don't you take it home now? There's still almost an hour before the merchants close their stalls and start celebrating their profits, and we'll require every tentacle then to keep order."
Russ's nager assumed a deferential configuration as he addressed Quildon. "Tuib Whilly, if you could tell me how to get in touch with you..." he asked delicately.
"I will be staying with my Uncle Duffy at the hotel," the dandy answered. It wasn't necessary to mention which hotel; of Tormin's three inns, only the Silver Cup came close to meeting the standards of a discriminating gentleman. "However, before I leave, I should like to witness the inventory of the disputed goods. After all, I am accountable to my father for the whole shipment."
Russ's obsequious smile became a little brittle around the edges, and Eskalie deduced that he had probably planned to take a small cut of the goods himself. However, he made no objection when one of Quildon's servants jumped up onto the wagon's seat. Instead, he gave a resigned sigh and followed Quildon and the other three servants to the barn, a curious Mon Ergest trailing behind. Eskalie gave a satisfied nod as she watched them go.
"With all of them watching, at least the inventory should be honest," she muttered under her breath.
"Indeed," a quiet voice agreed, in an accent as cultured as her own.
Eskalie started, zlinning the courtyard quickly to identify who had managed to sneak up on her unobserved. However, it was only Tallin. It figures. Although most Simes discouraged their Gens from speaking, the Householders didn't enforce this custom. The Killer Gen being what it was, it took full advantage of its owner's eccentricity.
She held her ground as it drifted over to her side, suppressing the urge to hide her vulnerable forearms out of reach behind her back. Between Dar combat training and its deadly ability to exploit Sime weaknesses, there wasn't a whole lot she could do about it if Tallin decided to kill her. Apart from running away, which wasn't an option under the circumstances, her greatest chance of safety was to convince it to accept her as a surrogate owner.
"Come on," she ordered, trying to sound as firm, confident, and nonthreatening as she could. "I think we have enough bread and cheese back at the office to make a meal for you."
As she had hoped, the Gen's attention was caught by the lure of food, and it followed her obediently through the jail's gate. As the noise and crowding of the street closed in around them, it closed the distance between them, until it was inches from her left side--and within easy reach of the vulnerable laterals on her left arm. To make matters worse, its attention had fixed on her, in a constant, impersonal fashion that didn't interfere with its continuous scanning of their surroundings. It cast a nageric haze between her and the other Simes around, making them zlin farther away than they actually were.
It was pleasant not to have to work so hard to separate her own feelings from those of the people around her. However, Eskalie would have been able to enjoy it more if the Gen's attentions hadn't resembled so closely the behavior of a Sime in the presence of its chosen kill.
What have I gotten myself into?
The elderly building which housed Kirlin Security's office was on an unpaved side street. What had began as an elegant town house had long since been carved up into small apartments and offices, with a communal outhouse and makeshift shower in back, and storage space in the attic, if one was prepared to risk thieves.
With so much to zlin and do at the Fall Fair, the street was deserted. Even the trio of loafers who often idled away their hours on the corner had found better entertainment elsewhere. Eskalie was glad: they knew she could never afford to buy a Gen with a nager like Tallin's, and she didn't want to argue the validity of her temporary custody where the Killer Gen might take offense. Worse yet, it might decide that her interrogators were right about her assumed authority, and run off on its own.
She fished her key ring out of her pants pocket with one tentacle, then carefully inserted the proper key into the worn lock and gently coaxed it to turn. She pulled the warped door open, having to augment slightly as it stuck against the equally warped doorjamb. Not for the first time, she reflected that the sticky door was probably a greater hindrance to burglars than the ancient lock. The near total absence within Kirlin Security's offices of anything worth stealing was a better deterrent than either.
She closed and locked the door behind them, cutting out all but the dim light that managed to force its way through the tiny, dirt-encrusted window above the door. The stairs, of course, lacked even the inadequate lighting of the entryway, since there was no reason for the landlord to pay to illuminate what his tenants could zlin for themselves easily enough.
"Wait here while I run up and get a lantern," Eskalie told the Gen.
"Never mind," Tallin said. A selyn-rich hand reached out and firmly grasped her shoulder. "Lead the way."
Eskalie had read that the Ancients used trained dogs to lead the blind around, since of course the ancestors of modern Simes had no tentacles and were unable to zlin. This was the first time she'd ever heard of a trained animal attempting to use a person for a similar purpose. However, as she led the way up the rickety staircase to the third floor the Gen stepped out confidently enough, using the movement of her shoulder under its hand to determine when she had reached a turn or a landing.
Either Dar trains its Gens a lot more comprehensively then I dreamed, or Tallin is more infernally clever than any three Gens have a right to be, she mused as they reached the final landing and started down the hall to Kirlin Security's offices.
The lock on the office door was actually good enough that it might discourage a casual burglar. Eskalie suspected that the Gen by her side could get it open using its lockpicks even faster than she could find the proper key. However, Tallin waited politely until she got the door open, then stepped through. She slipped past it and reached for the matches, struck one, and lit the lantern so that the Gen could see where to put its enormous feet. The creature looked around curiously.
The front office was a small room, barely large enough for Amsil's desk, two battered chairs, and a stool with a loose leg which tended to collapse at inconvenient moments. It required some rearrangement of the furniture to clear enough space to open the door to the small storage closet. Still, it was spacious compared with the back room, which she and Sesfin shared with the filing cabinet. Over the past few months, the place had come to feel like home to Eskalie. Looking around at the scrupulously clean but undeniably shabby room, the young detective compared it with her parents' elegant offices at Morlin Bank and Trust, or even Sectuib Califf's office at Householding Dar, and found herself embarrassed by her poverty.
"It's not fancy, but it's ours," she said a little defensively. Why am I explaining this to a Gen?
"It has...character," Tallin said, its nager politely neutral.
Aware of the passage of time, Eskalie retrieved half a loaf of black bread and a lump of cheese from her desk drawer. Amsil's desk yielded an apple, not too badly bruised, and she supplemented these provisions with the last few pieces of candy from Sesfin's stash in the filing cabinet. She knew from their previous encounters that the Gen could easily eat twice as much, but there was nothing more to be had. And I'd better remember to replace what I took, or Amsil and Sesfin will not be happy with me.
"Here's your dinner," she said, presenting her loot to the Gen. "I've got to get back to work, but you should be safe enough as long as you stay in the office. There's a chamberpot in the other room, if you require it, and a bedroll in the closet that you can spread between the desks when you're ready to sleep. The back room's pretty well insulated."
The extra insulation dated from a memorable day when Sesfin's eager perusal of a particularly gripping addition to his definitive collection of cheap thrillers had coincided with his sister's need. On occasion, she and Sesfin had taken advantage of the insulation and the bedroll for things other than sleep.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Tallin said with its absurdly formal courtesy. The Gen seated itself at Amsil's desk and prepared to start its meager meal.
"Just don't go exploring," Eskalie warned again, as she closed and locked the door behind her.
It was only three hours before dawn by the time the last drunken drovers had retired to their bedrolls to sleep off their hangovers. Sheriff Russ dismissed his temporary deputies to their own rest, with praise for a job well done and a sigh of relief that Tormin had survived another Fall Fair with no more than the usual disasters.
The three weary members of Kirlin Security made their way back to the office. Sesfin was eager to explain how expertly he had broken up a barroom altercation at the Crooked Stein, and Amsil was chortling over the new business Russ's endorsement would bring the firm. As a result, neither of Eskalie's partners noticed that she had been strangely silent about her own day's adventures. She wasn't even questioned about the bag of groceries she carried, although it contained more food than all three Simes would normally eat in a week.
Eskalie had hoped to break the news to her colleagues gently, preferably over a nice, relaxing cup of trin tea. However, when they entered the office, she realized that the extra insulation around the back room was woefully insufficient to hide Tallin's powerful nager.
"No," Amsil declared firmly, collapsing into her desk chair with a groan. "Absolutely not. Eskalie, that fancy horse of yours is bad enough, eating its fool head off like it does. We can NOT afford a pet Gen as well."
"Calm down, Amsil," Eskalie soothed. "It's not mine." Quickly, she explained how the Gen had ended up in her temporary custody. "I'll take it back to Sommerin later this morning, as I promised," she ended. "They might even give me a reward."
"Perverts," the older woman said, dismissing the Householding with a contemptuous toss of her head. However, with the Fair contract completed, Kirlin Security's small staff was at leisure. The chance that Eskalie could bring in a small reward from Householding Dar compared favorably to the near certainty that the agency's youngest partner would otherwise be unemployed.
"Oh, I suppose you might as well take the Gen back," she said grudgingly. "But next time you take in a stray animal, don't leave it unattended in the office. There's no telling what it might get into."
"All right," Eskalie promised, guiltily aware that Tallin, with its talent for picking locks, could have caused considerably more damage than Amsil's most pessimistic speculation.
With the Gen occupying the bedroll, Amsil and Sesfin decided to go out in search of a mug of good trin. Mindful of her promise, Eskalie stayed behind, contenting herself with the third harvest trash that Amsil kept in a battered tin on her desk. Even after so many months of drinking it, the brew was less than palatable.
She was too tired and restless to accomplish anything constructive. Despite this, she was reluctant to settle down for the short nap which would restore her normal efficiency. Ever since she had zlinned Yosum's dreadful end, her sleep had been plagued with nightmares of Gen hands closing around her arms, clamping down on the vulnerable nerve complex just above her laterals and squeezing. She didn't dare try to rest with the cause of those dreams so close. What if it were to wake up when I was asleep?
After making a half-hearted attempt to straighten up the front office, she quietly let herself into the back room and observed her nemesis. Tallin was sprawled on one side, sleeping with the enthusiasm only Gens, children, and cats brought to the activity. She could zlin one of Sesfin's books next to the bedroll, set aside next to the unlit lantern as if the creature had been reading it.
Or more likely, the book succumbed to the latest avalanche, the detective though, zlinning the piles of paper overflowing her lover's desk. She picked up the lantern and lit it, setting it on her own neatly organized desk. She glanced down at the book once more, then shuddered.
The gaudy, poorly proportioned picture on the cover showed a Wild Gen with a bushy black beard which almost hid its predatory snarl. It was standing next to an unrealistically buxom Sime woman tied to a tree, obviously preparing to dissect her laterals with a huge, gleaming knife. Behind a nearby bush, where the Gen couldn't see him, a handsome Border Patrolman prepared to leap to her rescue. The blood-red text above proclaimed that the volume revealed the SECRETS OF THE KILLER GENS!!!.
As far as Eskalie was concerned, Tallin was acquainted with far too many such secrets already. Mindful of the bad temper Gens could display if awakened prematurely, she stepped cautiously across Tallin and retrieved the book, replacing it on Sesfin's sagging bookshelf. Then she settled into her own desk chair to wait for the creature to wake up.
She hadn't intended to sleep, but the Gen's nager pulled her under the moment she relaxed. It was a restless doze, haunted by dreams of being unable to find something desperately important. Not a Gen to kill, as in her need nightmares: Tallin's nager was proof against that, particularly since she was pre-turnover. It wasn't her usual nightmare of being killed by a Gen, either. However, she woke with the odd conviction that she had mislaid a portion of herself, and had only a limited amount of time to find it.
She discovered to her surprise that over four hours had passed, and that she and the Gen had switched places: she had the bedroll, while Tallin was in her desk chair. She refused to let herself consider the most likely agent of the switch. The upcoming day would contain enough dangers of its own; she couldn't afford to wear away her courage by imagining the other, less benign things that might have happened to her while she was unable to zlin them coming.
The Gen responsible for her apprehensions was reading SECRETS OF THE KILLER GENS!!! by the early morning light which filtered through the cracked window. It appeared to find the text amusing. Underneath the amusement was hunger, and an urgent restlessness.
That explains my dreams.
Tallin looked up as she stretched. "Good, you're awake at last," it said, putting the book aside.
"You didn't have to let me sleep so long," the detective complained. "I hardly require a whole four hours of sleep, when I had a nap yesterday. It's not as if I were still a child."
The Gen gave her a stern look. "Even Simes require regular sleep to remain functional. You've been skimping lately, or you wouldn't have slept so long." It surveyed her Sime-thin frame with sharp disapproval. "You haven't been eating enough, either. You're losing muscle mass."
Its tone of voice was so similar to the one Eskalie's parents had used when she had done something particularly stupid that she found herself squirming. "I've been busy working," she asserted defensively. "This contract with the Tormin police was a big opportunity for Kirlin Security. Besides," she counterattacked, staring pointedly at the Gen's untentacled arms, "what makes you such an expert on what Simes do and don't require?"
Tallin's nager shimmered with genuine amusement as the Gen chuckled, its good humor largely restored. "Getting Simes healthy and keeping them that way is my profession," it claimed. "Whether they want to be healthy or not." One brown eye closed in a wink.
Its confident pride would not have been out of place in the nager of a skilled physician recounting her successes. On a Gen, the attitude was laughable. Besides, Califf might be willing to organize his life around his Gen's idea of what was good for him, but Eskalie had no intention of letting the arrogant (and deadly) creature run her life.
"We can leave for Sommerin as soon as I've washed and put on some fresh clothes," she announced, ignoring the clearly implied threat of Tallin's last sentence. "In the mean time, there's some bread and fruit for your breakfast."
The Gen was hungry enough to allow itself to be diverted. While it began on the bread, spreading it with jam, she sought out her trunk in the attic and scrounged for some clean clothing. The Fall Fair contract had kept her too busy to do her laundry, and all of her usual shirts were dirty. However, in the bottom of the trunk were two carefully hoarded riding outfits: beautifully made costumes in the latest fashion, in fabrics that put Quildon's garish ensemble to shame. They were part of the "debutante" disguise she had used to infiltrate the Forst Genfarm, back when she had believed that Tallin was simply a well-trained, harmless pet Gen with an unusually strong nager.
Eskalie's usual dress was more modest, in keeping with her position as the junior member of a small, struggling agency. She had placed the dull life of a debutante behind her, and had few regrets. However, Tallin's reaction to the shabby office the night before had heightened her awareness of how far below her social station she was living.
If my parents could see me now...
She had no intention of letting her parents, or indeed anyone from what she preferred to think of as her previous life, see her. On the other hand, she was willing to admit, if only to herself, I'm not sorry that I'll have to dress respectably for the journey to Sommerin.
When she returned to the office, she nodded a greeting to Amsil, who was absently munching an apple as she poured over the account books at her desk. When she checked the back office, she discovered that Tallin had already consumed half the loaf of bread, and there was no sign that the Gen was slowing down. Sesfin, at his own desk across from hers, had claimed a slice of his own, slathering it with a think layer of jam. Much of the preserve, Eskalie noticed, had ended up smeared across his face.
The Gen's got better table manners.
Setting aside the unwelcome observation, she shoved some of the papers littering her lover's desk to the center and perched on the newly revealed corner.
"You're all fancied up," Sesfin commented, eyeing the understated gold braid which accented her tasteful, rust-colored tunic. "What's the occasion?"
"I've got to take the Gen back to Sommerin today," Eskalie reminded him, nodding in Tallin's direction. "I'm less likely to run into trouble on the road if it isn't dressed better than I am."
Unwilling to interrupt a feeding animal, she settled down to wait until the Gen had finished its meal. She hadn't intended to eat anything, but the bread smelled particularly good. It would be a shame to waste it, when it's fresh, she told herself, taking a slice and spreading it with a properly thin layer of the preserves. She took a neat bite, and discovered to her surprise that it tasted as good as it smelled.
She had almost finished her second slice when she caught Tallin's approving glance and realized how she'd been manipulated. That deceitful creature used its own hunger to make me want to eat. She hastily abandoned the remains of her meal.
"If you're quite finished eating," she told it irritably, "the sun's been up for almost an hour, and we've got a long ride today."
Without demur, Tallin swallowed its last mouthful of bread and stood. Like the obedient pet Gen it could resemble at will, it followed her out of the building. To Eskalie's relief, she was able to proceed around the corner without attracting more than a few envious glances from passing neighbors. Still, she breathed a sigh of relief when she and the Gen ducked into the relative safety of Danvan's livery stable.
Danvan was a scrawny, unkempt man who smelled all too strongly of the manure he shoveled all day. Still, he took meticulous care of the animals in his charge, and his prices were more reasonable than most. The hacks he rented out were all sound animals, although their breeding and manners were no better than their owner's.
After a brief search, Eskalie discovered Danvan shoveling out an empty stall. He coughed and spat into the dirty straw as he zlinned them coming, then paused to zlin Tallin again.
"I don't s'pose you'd sell that Gen?" he asked her, his full attention on her charge.
Eskalie stepped between them, blocking Tallin's nager and returning the man's attention to her. "The Gen isn't mine to sell, Danvan," she told him. "I'm to take it to its owners in Sommerin. I'll require my mare, Star, and a hack which can keep up with her."
"Ain't none of 'em can do that," the stableman said with a shrug, as he led the way to the stableyard. "Dusty there can go the distance, though, and he's fresh enough."
Danvan always kept a few of his rental animals hitched in the yard, saddled and ready, just in case a customer came by. The mousy dun he had indicated laid its ears back and switched its tail irritably as the stableman approached. However, despite the show of bad temper, it was a young, strong animal.
"Very well," Eskalie agreed.
Leaving Dusty tied for the moment, Danvan went to catch Eskalie's mount, which had been turned out into a small paddock with the other animals not intended for use that day. The black mare looked out of place among its ill-bred stablemates, like a peacock among a gaggle of geese. From the tips of the delicately pointed ears to the strong, slender legs on which it danced so gracefully, the beast could never be mistaken for anything but the pedigreed queen it was.
Eskalie had grown up riding such horses as a matter of course. However, her earnings at Kirlin Security could no more cover the cost of a well-bred mare than they could cover the sort of clothes she was wearing. Star had been offered to Eskalie by a former neighbor, Semma Arslan, in partial payment for escorting the woman's sister, Eskalie's former best friend Helka, to the border after the girl had established. Amsil had wanted to sell the mare, but Eskalie had managed to convince her boss that a pedigreed horse ate no more than a hack, and went a lot faster.
Danvan shared her appreciation of fine horseflesh, and treated the mare with a proprietary pride which Eskalie found amusing. Still, it ensured that Star received the careful handling that the horse's high-strung temperament required.
As the stableman brushed the dust from the skittish mare's coat, murmuring soothingly all the while, Tallin reached into an inside pocket of its blue-green and gray Householding livery and removed a coin. "For the rental of the horse," it told her, flipping the shining, newly minted disk in her direction. She caught it automatically, then gaped when she saw that the coin was silver. When she zlinned the Gen's pocket, she discovered that it was only part of a substantial sum.
"How did you come to be carrying so much money?" she demanded. Among Kirlin Security's neighbors in the dilapidated office building were a notoriously vicious loan shark, and at least three busy prostitutes--all of whom shared Amsil's distrust of banks. She had left Tallin unsupervised for hours the previous night, and once the Gen had told her that before it established, it had been a burglar for several years.
Visions of disaster danced before her eyes, until Tallin shrugged and explained, "What pickpocket would think to target a Gen?"
Put that way, it made a weird kind of sense for a Householder like Califf to let his Gen carry his cash.
Tallin cast an admiring glance at Star as Danvan brought out Eskalie's saddle. The mare was preening, as if it knew how the sunlight gleamed on its freshly cleaned ebony coat.
Eskalie felt oddly flattered at the Gen's approval of her most prized possession. She had seen (and envied) the quality of the horseflesh Dar maintained in its stables.
Tallin then turned its attention to Dusty, and gave a resigned sigh. Stepping aside to the straggly bush growing beside the stable entrance, the Gen took out a small pocketknife and cut a branch.
Eskalie froze at the sight of a knife in Gen hands. She hadn't thought to search Tallin for weapons; certainly any sane Sime would go to great lengths to ensure that his Gen was unarmed. The blade was small, but easily sharp enough to slice the woody twig--or a Sime arm. At the thought, her vulnerable laterals cringed into their sheaths as far as they could go. Whyever did Califf let the creature have that?
On the other hand, given that its Householding specialized in hand to hand combat techniques, it seemed likely that Tallin would not be significantly more dangerous with a knife than without it. Shen, the Gen can provoke a Sime into attacking it with one flick of its nager. And then crush his laterals with one good squeeze...
She shuddered. Yosum Forst had been a lorsh, and if he'd survived he would have killed her. But no one should have to die like that, betrayed by the deepest Sime instincts.
Oblivious to her alarm, the Gen returned to her side, neatly trimming the side branches away, but leaving a tuft of leaves at the end. "I expect I'll require this," it said, inspecting its improvised but effective riding crop. With a satisfied nod, it closed the blade and slipped the knife back into its pocket. Eskalie breathed marginally easier.
A few minutes later, Danvan had finished slipping the bridle on Eskalie's mare, and led it and Dusty over to the travelers. Eskalie paid him with the coin Tallin had given her, then swung lightly to the saddle. The mare danced in anticipation as she settled in and gathered up the reins.
Dusty's ears went flat back as Tallin approached. It snapped at the Gen, and received a fist on its tender nose for its trouble. While it was considering this development, Tallin hastily mounted. The ill-bred horse tried to buck as it felt the Gen's considerable weight land on its back, but Tallin had shortened the reins, and it couldn't get its head down far enough. Next the beast planted its feet and refused to move at all, but Tallin tugged one rein sharply and shifted in the saddle, pulling the horse off balance, and it was forced to move or fall.
In quick succession, Dusty ran through the rest of the tricks livery stable hacks used to get out of work: rearing to unseat its rider, sidling sideways to crush its rider's leg against the stable wall, grabbing the bit, shying at an imagined threat. Tallin foiled each strategy with an expertise worthy of an experienced horseman, and shortly, the horse gave up. With a resigned sigh, it followed the dancing mare out of the stableyard.
Eskalie and her charge wended their way through the outskirts of Tormin without meeting more than the expected minor annoyances: slow wagons, children playing tag in the streets, and frequent offers to purchase Tallin, which the detective declined with a polite wave of one tentacle. Once they left town on the main road to Sommerin, Eskalie loosened her reins and let the mare spring into a brisk canter. Much to its distress, Dusty was compelled to follow by a firm application of heels and switch to its ribs.
Eskalie's last trip to Sommerin had taken a full summer's day, and she had arrived well after dark. However, she had been riding an inferior hack that day, and Amsil, who had accompanied her, had never ridden a horse before. As Danvan had promised, Dusty was able to keep the mare's pace, albeit only with constant urging from its rider. Fortunately, Tallin seemed as eager to be home as Eskalie was to return the Killer Gen to its rightful owners.
The road was rutted in places with the damage done by the fairgoers bringing heavy wagonloads of goods to market. Occasionally, they passed a cloud of smoke, where a farmer was taking advantage of the calm day to burn a blighted field before the disease could spread. Still, it appeared that the crop had been reasonably bountiful. At least, the offers called out to Eskalie by the farmers were generous, even for a Gen of Tallin's quality.
It was late afternoon when the travelers reached the outskirts of Sommerin. This was marked by the Smuggler's Roost, a particularly lowbrow shiltpron parlor operated in a semi-converted barn by three former criminals named Mak, Eitan, and Zilmor. The porstan the three brewed would have been overpriced if they'd given it away free, but Zilmor's undeniable talent on the shiltpron had so far been sufficient to keep the venture from folding, particularly when there was a Gen available for her to use. Tallin had proved more than willing to be used in the past, with some very interesting results, but Eskalie was relieved when the Gen showed no interest in stopping to indulge itself.
Sommerin was a larger city than Tormin, and there was plenty of traffic to slow them down. Cheered by the thought that she would soon be rid of her dangerous charge, Eskalie patiently wove her way through the throng to the opposite side of town, and turned her mare down a cobblestoned alley. At the end was a stone wall, high enough to discourage Simes from climbing it. Any attackers who tried to scale the wall anyway would soon regret the attempt as they encountered the jagged pieces of glass embedded on the top.
However, Eskalie had no intention of making an unauthorized entrance into a compound populated by specialists in hand-to-hand combat and their trained Killer Gens. Set into a reinforced section of the wall was the main gate of Householding Dar: a solid wooden door large enough for a wagon, heavily reinforced with precious metal. Only Pens and perverts could afford that kind of security, Eskalie thought, as she rang the bell for the gatekeeper. Or would require it.
A small window in the gate opened, and a woman's face peered out. She looked curiously at Eskalie, then gasped as she saw Tallin on the other horse. The window slammed closed, and the detective heard the woman calling for assistance.
A few minutes later, there was a rumble as the heavy bars which sealed the gate were withdrawn. The door slowly opened to admit them, and the gatekeeper waved Eskalie through. She found herself in a clean, cheerful courtyard, surrounded by well-maintained buildings. There were half a dozen perverts scattered about the area, along with eight Gens and a handful of children. They stared with wary curiosity at the new arrival.
Then Tallin followed her through the gate, and was quickly surrounded by a horde of eager questioners.
"Sosu Tallin, what happened?"
"We expected you back last night. Did you run into trouble on the road?"
The Gen held up a hand and got immediate silence. "Yes, there's been trouble," it announced, its anger, exhaustion, and desperate worry leaking through the gaps in its foggy outer nager. "You'll find out the details soon enough, but right now, Miz Morlin and I have had a long ride."
A tall woman in a worn exercise outfit took charge, with the same air of command Eskalie's uncle the general used when addressing his troops. Within moments, the gatekeeper was back on duty, messengers had been sent off to call the House officers to a meeting, and others had been appointed to care for the tired horses.
When the crowd had disbursed, the woman turned to Eskalie. "I'm Ree, chief combat instructor," she introduced herself. "Let me show you to a guest room, Miz Morlin."
Eskalie had planned to give the perverts their Gen and leave, preferably after collecting a reward for her services. However, it appeared that all of the people who could authorize such a reward in their Sectuib's absence had been summoned to the emergency meeting. If they acted anything like the department managers of her parents' bank, they'd be arguing for hours. She didn't have enough money for an inn room and stabling costs, and Star was too tired to go all the way back to Tormin without a night's rest and a good feed.
Which might as well be at the perverts' expense, she thought, as she surrendered the mare's reins to an adolescent boy. Besides, the perverts might take offense if I insulted their House by refusing their hospitality, and that stableboy could probably take me apart with one hand tied behind his back, even without being able to augment!
Ree showed Eskalie to a comfortable, well-insulated room on the first floor of the main building, next to the infirmary, then hurried off. Before Eskalie had a chance to explore the room, a child arrived from the kitchen with a supper tray. With nothing else to do, the detective nibbled at the food for a while, and enjoyed the pot of excellent trin tea that had come with it.
She spent the rest of the evening browsing through a book on contemporary art which someone had left on the dresser. She'd never had a passion for art, but the book was at least a nice change from Sesfin's cheap novels and Tormin's weekly newspaper, which had been the only reading material available to her for the past seven months.
Even with these amenities, however, she was unable to shake a niggling sense of wrongness about the events of the day before. Dar was obviously wealthy: the furnishings in this guest room alone were worth almost as much as the disputed wagonload of goods. Householders were routinely cheated or overcharged in business dealings. That was a much a part of their lives as their perversion. Mementos of his dead mother or not, Califf should have surrendered the goods immediately, and not risked his life by allowing himself to be imprisoned. If Quildon's documents really were forgeries, the pervert would stand a better than even chance of reclaiming the goods in court. Most judges took a dim view of financial improprieties, even when the victims were only perverts.
So either Califf has reason to believe that Quildon's claim is valid, or there's something of overwhelming value in that wagonload of goods. She reconsidered. Or both. And whatever it is, it has to be time-critical as well as valuable, or Councilman Whilly wouldn't have sent his son on the errand.
But what could be so critical about a wagonload of cloth and farming supplies?
She was debating whether to grab a few hours of sleep on the canopied bed when someone stopped in front of her door and politely projected a desire to enter. When Eskalie signaled her consent, the door opened and a young woman poked her head inside.
"I'm Wirta," she introduced herself. "I'm to Escort you to Sectuib's office. Would you come with me, please?" Without the insulation of the door between them, Eskalie could zlin the same curiously artificial taint to the woman's nager that she had observed in Califf's field. Another channel?
As if to answer the question, the woman's fields shifted until she zlinned almost like a Gen. The imitation had all the realism of a prostitute pretending to desire a client: good enough to attract someone only if they didn't care whether they had the real thing.
As the perverts don't.
Worse yet, this channel, like Califf, fairly oozed her willingness to accommodate Eskalie, or any other Sime or Gen who would sit still for such treatment. Swallowing nausea at the thought, Eskalie followed her escort towards the Householding offices in offended silence.
The channel stopped in front of the door which led to the Sectuib's office. She opened it a few inches, and announced pertly, "Miz Morlin is here."
There was an answering mumble, too soft for Eskalie to make out, and channel opened the door a bit wider and waved the detective through with a inviting smile. It was obvious that the invitation wasn't limited to entering the office.
Eskalie swept past with her head held high, determined not to give the channel the satisfaction of a response. She was so intent on putting the ill-mannered pervert in her place that she didn't bother to zlin the room until she had entered it.
She realized her mistake as soon as she found herself surrounded by an all-too-familiar foggy nager. Instead of the person in charge, as she had expected, the desk was occupied by Tallin. The Gen had been fed, bathed, and dressed in clean clothes. Despite the dark circles under its eyes, it was wide awake, running on nervous energy fueled by the urgent anxiety which had been consuming it since Califf's arrest.
It was plain to zlin that the creature was up to something, and that Eskalie was part of its plan. The detective couldn't help feeling apprehensive: its last scheme had involved using her as cover so that it could get into the Forst Genfarm and steal their records. Neither its owner, Califf, nor her own uncle, who had approved the mad conspiracy, had bothered to warn her about what the deadly Gen was capable of doing to a Sime who angered it.
Tallin waved her to a seat in the visitor's chair with the same self-confident authority Eskalie's father used with a valued customer. At the same time, the channel closed the insulated door behind her with a soft click, leaving her alone with the Killer Gen.
"Please, sit down," it insisted. "Would you care for some tea?"
Numbly, Eskalie obeyed the polite order, seating herself on the edge of the comfortably padded chair. At least with the desk between them, she would have a chance to escape if the dangerous creature attacked her physically, and she wouldn't reach turnover with its great vulnerability to nageric disturbances until the following day.
By which time, I intend to be as far away from here as possible, reward or no reward.
She accepted the mug Tallin offered, wrapping her handling tentacles around it for comfort. The steam curled around her face, bringing the delectable odor of premium trin. She sipped delicately, enjoying the treat.
With that unnaturally bold manner it used with people who knew its true nature, the Gen proceeded to state its business. "As you've probably guessed, Dar's membership is rather upset about having our Sectuib in jail. We wish to resolve the issue as quickly as possible."
"I can understand why," the detective said politely, taking another sip of her tea.
"Then it won't surprise you to hear that we can't wait for Sheriff Russ's routine inquiry to make its way to Zarokka City and back. Consequently, we have voted to set aside a sum--" it named a figure--"to enlist your services to pursue the matter personally."
The money was half the sum of the disputed loan, and easily three quarters of the ostensible value of the wagonload of goods, horses and all. It would also pay Kirlin Security's operating expenses and Pen taxes for a month, and there was no hint of doubt in the Gen's nager that she would jump at the chance to earn it. Eskalie knew that logically, she should do just that, but she wasn't feeling logical at the moment.
"What makes you think I want your commission?" she demanded, sudden anger temporarily overcoming her sense of self-preservation. "Do you think I'm so poor that I'll take any job offered, no matter what? I've worked hard for my reputation, and I won't compromise it by publicly hiring out to rescue a pervert who..." She broke off, fighting down nausea at the thought of what the pervert did. As frequently as possible, and with any Gen--or Sime--whom he could seduce into agreeing.
"Would you rather compromise your reputation by publicly breaking your sworn word?" Tallin inquired calmly. Its nager displayed no alarm at her display of temper, or fear of her reaction to its insult. Its determination, however, was plain to zlin.
"I never swore to work for perverts," Eskalie pointed out.
"True," the Gen agreed. "However, you did give my son your personal assurance as a Morlin that he would not suffer any permanent damage to his health during his stay in the Tormin jail."
"And I kept my word. Sheriff Russ doesn't allow his deputies to beat up prisoners, no matter what they are, and Califf's not locked up in one of the general holding cells with the riffraff. Your precious chief pervert will keep just fine until Sheriff Russ gets an answer back from Zarokka. Or are you trying to claim that the leader of Householding Dar can't defend himself against a pair of unarmed kids?"
"The children are not a danger, and neither are the deputies," Tallin agreed. "However, my son is a channel. He's got two more days at most before entran sets in, and without a Companion available to do an outfunction..."
The Gen finally noticed Eskalie's blank look.
"My apologies," it said. "I tend to forget how little is known about channels outside of Householdings. I won't go into the medical details, since I doubt you're interested--" the detective could only agree--"but once channels get used to taking donations and giving transfers, they become sick with what we call entran within a few days if they stop working. Without proper treatment, the complications become fatal rather quickly, and it's not a pretty death."
Every new thing Eskalie learned about the perverts' lifestyle made it sound worse. No wonder their channels spend so much time chasing after every available nager. How could anyone want a fake kill badly enough to turn a normal person into an insatiable...? She found herself fighting to keep from depositing her dinner on the office's plush carpet.
"I see that you understand," Tallin said. "I could have prevented those complications easily enough if Sheriff Russ had allowed me to stay with Califf, but he didn't. That means my son must be released from prison within four days." The foggy nager condensed into an ice-cold determination as it added, "One way or another."
It didn't take much effort to deduce the Gen's intentions. If I don't agree to take the case, that creature fully intends to break its owner out of jail. And it doesn't care who it has to kill in the process.
The detective was under no illusions that the deadly Gen could be prevented from succeeding if it acted on its threats. The Genproof latches which had originally secured the cells back when the building was the town Pen might have stopped Tallin, since they had required tentacles to open, not a key. However, these had long since been replaced by padlocks capable of confining Simes. And those won't even slow the creature down much.
Eskalie might have been able to justify turning down the perverts' job on the grounds that she could hardly be held morally responsible for the medical consequences of Califf's perverted lifestyle. However, when she had accepted the post of temporary deputy, she had sworn other oaths: to uphold the law and to prevent her fellow peace officers from walking into unnecessary danger so far as possible. The job had ended, but she didn't consider her oaths less valid because of that.
She couldn't allow a jailbreak, and warning Sheriff Russ to place a guard on the pervert's cell would only result in adding one more victim to the Killer Gen's credit. And I can't in honor even warn them the creature's dangerous!
There was nothing that Eskalie wanted less than to be forced to return to Zarokka; she had suffered far too much ensuring that she'd never have to enter her parents' bank again. However, it appeared to be the only way to honor her conflicting obligations.
And I can settle this with Jan herself. It's not as if I have to even see my parents. Besides, she admitted to herself, I want to know what's going on.
"Very well," she agreed, hoping that her curiosity wasn't going to be fatal this time. "I'll take the case--on one condition."
"If I find the truth of this matter within four days, Dar must abide by the outcome. Whatever it is." She zlinned the Gen closely to make sure it understood. "That means if Quildon's loan is documented in the bank records, he gets the goods. And if he decides to continue his case against Califf, Dar and its individual Simes--and Gens--must let the law take its course. No jailbreaks, no convenient accidents to Quildon or the witnesses. Understood?"
"Agreed. Neither I nor any other member of Dar will interfere."
Eskalie didn't believe for one moment that Dar's leadership would consider themselves bound by a Gen's word. However, she was also willing to credit them with the common sense not to court disaster by defying the government in so spectacular a fashion. Not when their perverted lifestyle was barely tolerated as it was.
For good reason.
It was Tallin's personal agreement which concerned her, and there had been no quiver of deception in the Gen's nager. It might change its mind later, of course, if her findings went against its son. However, if it's right about how fast the pervert will die, it won't find out he's still in jail until it's too late.
The Killer Gen nodded, its nager displaying its satisfaction. "With a dawn start, we can reach Zarokka before your parents' bank closes tomorrow."
"Wait a minute," Eskalie said, as a sinking feeling twisted her stomach in knots. "What do you mean, 'we'?"
"I'm coming with you."
"What?!" the detective yelped. Recovering quickly, she insisted, "No. Absolutely not. If the matter is as time-critical as you claim, I can't afford to waste time dragging a Gen along."
Tallin's matter-of-fact confidence never wavered. "On the contrary," it stated. "It's precisely because of the timing that you can't afford not to have me along. With me to run interference, we can take the direct route back to Tormin from Zarokka, across that finger of Gen Territory. That will save a day, and settle this matter before Califf is in serious danger."
"Go through Gen Territory?" Eskalie had heard of the shortcut; some of the more reckless of the traveling merchants used it occasionally. Many of them disappeared in the attempt, and she had no desire to join them and suffer the nonexistent mercy of the Wild Gens.
On the other hand, the Wild Gens might treat a Gen escaping from Sime Territory reasonably well. With its owner gone, has the creature decided to escape to Gen Territory? Pursuing the thought, she asked, "What do the--er--'officers' of Dar think about that part of your plan?"
"I haven't told them about it yet," Tallin admitted.
Her suspicions fully roused, Eskalie fixed the creature with what she hoped would appear a firm stare. "I have no intention of allowing myself to be accused of stealing a valuable Gen," she informed it. "You are not coming along unless I have the full consent of whoever's in charge here, with Califf gone."
"You'll have it," the Gen said, its confidence so absolute that for one moment Eskalie found herself believing that Dar's chief officer really would agree to let their valuable pet travel through Gen Territory.
Nonsense, she told herself as the Gen's nager returned to its incessant worry over Califf's welfare. Even perverts have more sense than that. She said nothing, however. She was more than willing to let the Gen's owners be the ones to face its wrath when it was refused the permission it sought.
Having won her qualified agreement to its scheme, Tallin dismissed her politely to Wirta's care, with an admonition to get at least a few hours sleep before the morning. The dark circles under the creature's eyes showed that it would do well to follow its own advice, but then, Gens required almost as much sleep as children.
Eskalie hadn't planned on following the impudent Gen's orders, but by the fourth chapter, the art book had degenerated into an uncritical praise fest lauding the quality of art produced by Householders, while dismissing several of her favorite artists out of hand as "substandard." In disgust, she extinguished her candles and retired to the comfortable bed for a quick nap.
She had barely closed her eyes when she started awake, heart pounding, convinced that Gen hands were closing around her tentacle sheaths, slowly crushing her laterals. Shen! I won't even hit turnover until tomorrow. Am I going to start having nightmares before turnover as well?
Determined not to let thoughts of a mere Gen deprive her of sleep, she turned over and tried again. This time, she found herself being chased across the dream landscape by Califf and Wirta, their imitation-Gen nagers an obscene contrast to the laterals they extended towards her in invitation.
She spent the rest of the night pacing the room, counting the moments until she could ride far away from the insatiable perverts and their killer Gen.
The sky was just starting to turn gray with the approaching dawn when Wirta arrived at her door to escort her to the courtyard, still projecting the same invitation which had troubled Eskalie's rest. Besides Wirta, there were at least two other channels with the small group which had gathered in the courtyard to watch her departure. Ree, the combat instructor, was also present, standing off to one side with a man whose overdeveloped muscles would have seemed almost Genlike, if there hadn't been five real Gens present with which to compare him.
Eskalie didn't know much about how the Householdings were administered, but she could spot a committee of officials when she zlinned one. The reason for their presence became clear when a flashy chestnut was led out alongside her black mare, the saddle bags packed with food, clothing, and incidentals. It was a big-boned, spirited animal, quite capable of carrying a large person all day.
A person, or... Before she could finish the thought, Tallin was at her side. Sleep had restored much of its usual alertness, and it had just completed a substantial meal. Instead of the ubiquitous blue-green and gray Dar livery, it was dressed in the rough tunic and pants of a fashionable pet Gen. Around its neck was a lightweight metal collar, but Eskalie was under no illusions that the restraint would be any help in curbing the creature.
It's probably got a spare key in that flute case again, anyway.
An amused twinkle in the Gen's eyes showed that it was well aware of how neatly it had outmaneuvered her. In the presence of the assembled dignitaries, Eskalie could hardly claim that it was running off without permission.
I should have guessed that even perverts would be just as glad if that Killer Gen decided to go elsewhere.
With an unsettlingly good imitation of the formal etiquette of Eskalie's upper-class peers, Tallin bowed politely and presented her with a neatly embroidered moneybag, heavy with coins. The detective accepted it, automatically judging the value of its contents by zlinning the density of the coins.
Her full fee was there, as she had known it would be. She was therefore honor-bound to provide the services for which she had been hired--all of them. Refusing to show less dignity than the Gen, Eskalie tied the moneybag to her belt and turned to accept Star's reins from the stableboy.
She ignored Tallin's soft chuckle as she fastened her own luggage behind Star's saddle and swung aboard. She didn't bother to supervise the Gen. If it couldn't get on the chestnut by itself, she would be delighted to leave it behind. However, it mounted the beast without incident and followed her out of the gate.
It played the part of a pet Gen with near perfection as they threaded their way through the city streets. It remained completely silent, keeping the chestnut's nose a half length behind Star's tail, just far enough back that the mare wouldn't feel crowded and start kicking. Its nager was under much better control today. Only an occasional glimpse of the underlying brilliance was zlinnable through the outer fog, and the slight hint of anxiety was more suited to its role than its usual obscene fearlessness.
Eskalie was starting to feel a cautious optimism as they left town on the main road for Tormin. This early, there was little traffic. The fall's big local fairs were pretty much over for the year, much of the harvest was in, and most people were content to stay home rather then risk traveling in bad weather. There was only a farmer or two, and a few revelers making their unsteady way back to town. The detective expected even less traffic after they reached the turnoff which would take them to Zarokka.
It wasn't long before they passed the source of the revelers' intoxication: the Smuggler's Roost. The mingled odors of stale, cheap porstan, urine, and vomit could be easily smelled from the road. It had obviously just closed, since the three disreputable ex-crooks who owned it were making a halfhearted attempt to clean up after their customers excesses. As Zilmor, the shiltpron player, carried a bucket of kitchen slop out the side door, she zlinned the two travelers.
The bucket hit the ground, spilling its odorous contents across the packed earth, where they mingled with the contributions of her customers. Ignoring the mess, she sprinted for the road.
"Why, Pet, I thought you were out of town," she greeted Tallin enthusiastically, ignoring Eskalie completely. "I've worked out a great arrangement of that ballad. Come on in, have a glass of porstan, and I'll play it for you."
"Not today, Zilmor," the Gen replied. "Miz Morlin and I are in a hurry."
Eskalie didn't know which offended her more: the musician's lack of basic manners in approaching another Sime's Gen without permission, or the ill-trained creature's impudence in believing that it could speak for her. Her reaction finally caught Zilmor's attention.
"Well, I won't keep you then," she said, backing off to make it clear that she wasn't challenging Eskalie for possession of the Gen. "Take care of Miz Morlin, Pet," she continued, blithely adding insult to injury. "She's good folks, even if she don't have much in the way of street smarts."
"I intend to."
The Gen's firm tone sent shivers down Eskalie's spine. Star felt her tension and broke into a canter. Instead of curbing the mare, Eskalie let it run, for the moment not caring if she left Tallin behind.
However, the creature proved as difficult to shake as the nightmares it engendered. Barely two minutes passed before the chestnut was once again at the mare's side. Star snorted, eager for a race, but Eskalie reined her horse in before it could tire. The chestnut pranced as Tallin slowed beside her, flirting with Star. The black mare ignored the other horse as thoroughly as Eskalie tried to ignore its rider.
The silence continued as they reached the turnoff for Zarokka City, an hour later. This was a winding track, too narrow and steep for wagons, which connected the Sommerin-Tormin eyeway with that connecting Zarokka and the regional capitol. However, a rider on a good horse or mule could save two days off the time required to go around by the eyeways.
As they wound through the hills, Eskalie zlinned about her carefully for thieves and Raiders. She was uncomfortably aware of how far Tallin's nager would carry, with so little traffic on the road to disguise it. Her parents had always cautioned her about traveling alone, even when there were no recent reports of trouble on the road.
However, if there were thieves working the hills, they had evidently gotten discouraged by the lack of traffic and given up before she passed. As the sun rose towards its zenith, the detective scanned ahead, looking for an appropriate place to give the horses a rest. When she spotted a small meadow at the side of the road, with a stream crossing it, she guided the mare to the side of the road and dismounted. She loosened Star's girth and removed the bit so the mare could graze. Might as well feed the Gen, too, she thought sourly. That's better than having the creature's oversized appetite nagging at me all afternoon.
Eskalie herself had no desire for food. A flutter in her chest and a twinging ache in her abdomen warned her that turnover was immanent, with its nausea and other accompanying difficulties. At least I remembered to pack a good supply of rags. I'd hate to stain my good clothing--or my saddle.
Since there were no passing Simes to observe, Tallin didn't bother to wait for her to feed it. After tending its mount, the Gen removed a large picnic lunch from the chestnut's saddle bags before turning the horse loose to graze. "Are you planning to sulk all day?" it asked, handing her an apple before starting on a thick cheese sandwich.
"You haven't said a word since we left Dar."
Eskalie took a bite of the apple to hide her confusion. "Why would I?" she asked.
"It is customary to make polite conversation with one's traveling companions, is it not?"
The detective stared at Tallin, bewildered by the complaint. She doubted that the Gen would find much entertainment in the sort of polite conversation she had been taught to make with her peers. After all, what interest could a Gen have in the stock available at the various Choice Auctions, or the doings of the upper class? What passed for casual conversation among the lower classes was even less appropriate, since it consisted mainly of bemoaning the poor quality of the kills available at the local Pen.
It was useless (not to mention potentially dangerous) to discuss the fine points of finding a satisfying kill with a Killer Gen which just might take the advice to heart. She doubted that informing the creature that she considered it part of her luggage, not a traveling companion, would be any better received. Remembering her father's oft-repeated advice, she countered Tallin's complaint with a few of her own.
"You blackmail me into taking this case by threatening my reputation, force me--and your legitimate owners--to let you come along, and now you expect me to entertain you as well?"
The Gen took another bite of its sandwich and chewed slowly, its foggy nager calm as it considered her accusations.
"Shall we examine your charges individually?" it suggested after it had swallowed. "First, I haven't forced you to do anything against your conscience. Nor would I if I could. I did point out where I thought your duty lay--but you're here because you, yourself, agreed with me."
Since this was actually true, although not in the way the creature meant, Eskalie couldn't deny it. "And I suppose that you used a similar technique to convince whoever's in charge now at Householding Dar that you should be allowed to come along?"
"Not quite," Tallin admitted. Its gray eyes twinkled, and the surface calm of its nager sparkled with humor. "I didn't have to, you see. As First Companion, I'm in charge of Dar while our Sectuib is incapacitated or otherwise unable to perform his duties."
The enormity of this revelation shocked Eskalie to speechlessness, corroborated as it was by the Gen's conviction of its truthfulness. She'd known that perverts treated their Gens with an absurd solicitousness matched only by those rich society widows whose pampered lapdogs were allowed to sit at the dining table and eat off plates. However, even those dowagers who angered their heirs by providing for their spoiled pets in their wills didn't expect the animals to act as the executors of their estates as well.
No wonder the creature's so insufferable.
Eskalie glanced down to avoid the Gen's too-amused gaze, and discovered that the apple had disappeared during the conversation, leaving only a mangled core clenched in her tentacles. The rest of the fruit had somehow ended up inside her, although she couldn't recall taking more than a bite.
This fresh evidence of the hazards of traveling with the Killer Gen threatened to overwhelm her. She threw the apple core as far as she could, augmenting in her frustration, and knelt by the stream to wash the stickiness from her tentacles. Feeling a bit better for the display of temper, she retrieved a rag from her saddlebags, and left Tallin to the remains of its meal as she sought the seclusion of a pile of boulders.
The Gen had finished its own meal by the time she returned, and was making use of a small clump of trees. Trees weren't as good a privacy screen as granite, but Eskalie appreciated the effort. If nothing else, it would keep the picnic site clean for the next group of travelers. She caught the horses and led them back to the road, away from the temptation to grab another bite of grass.
She was retightening Star's girth when her turnover hit. She clutched weakly at the saddle with all eight handling tentacles as the world seemed to spin around her, staggering as her knees threatened to give out. The mare danced nervously away, and Eskalie had just enough presence of mind to let go of the saddle before she was pulled off her feet and dragged.
A wave of nausea hit, and she doubled over, depositing the apple's remains on the dusty road. Her perception of the surrounding fields was so distorted that she couldn't tell if the selyn source which seemed to be approaching from three different directions at once was real or another hallucination.
"What's wrong? Turnover?"
It was real.
A cool, selyn-rich hand slipped under Eskalie's forehead and steadied it, and another wrapped around her waist to keep her on her feet as she retched helplessly, trying to empty an already empty stomach. At the same time, a replete Gen nager blended with her own, providing a solid reference point which allowed her to reorient herself. Eskalie permitted the intrusion, too miserable to fight the Killer Gen off.
"This is what happens when you don't take care of yourself properly," Tallin scolded, with a strange mixture of exasperation and concern she'd never zlinned in any other Gen. "If you don't start eating and sleeping regularly, you're going to do permanent damage to your health."
"You're not my father."
The sullen retort slipped out before the detective could stop it. However, Tallin really was giving a good imitation of a parent tending a recalcitrant child which had injured itself through some particularly half-witted folly...down to ignoring her protest completely.
Given the zeal with which it was pursuing its son's freedom, she supposed that having the creature view her as a child was safer than having it view her as a potentially dangerous adult.
As her world slowly stopped spinning, Eskalie's nausea eased. With Tallin's assistance, she was able to stagger over to the stream and clean herself up. A few careful sips of the cool water settled the cramping in her painfully empty stomach, but did nothing to ease the cramps lower down.
Shen, it's going to be one of those months, she thought. She massaged the affected area in a futile attempt to ease the pain.
"Stomach still bothering you?" the Gen asked. "Oh, I see," it answered its own question. "Here, let me."
Once more Tallin's nager linked with hers, muffling the pain more effectively than fosebine ever had. As she stopped tensing against the discomfort, the cramping slowly eased, although it never completely stopped.
"That's the best I can do for now," the Gen said. "If I'd known you were prone to this kind of trouble, I'd have had one of the other Companions work with you last night. There are some problems which are easier to treat before they begin."
Eskalie was just as glad that Tallin hadn't known about her rough turnovers. One Killer Gen taking an interest in her health was bad enough.
Much of the obscuring haze had returned to the surface of the Killer Gen's nager, although a spotlight of attention pierced the fog to remain on her. It was a very strange effect, but it did keep her pain under control. Still, she couldn't seem to muster the energy to stand up.
"Rest for a few minutes," the Gen ordered. "I'll get the horses."
The spotlight of attention remained on her while the creature performed its errand, stretching thinner with distance and the distraction of the task, but never fading completely. It solidified again as Tallin led the horses over to her.
"You know," it said conversationally as it checked Star's girth, "you could avoid a lot of this trouble if you spent a bit more time around Gens each month, particularly just before your turnover."
"How am I supposed to do that?" Eskalie snapped. "Claim my kill two weeks early? I couldn't afford the food, much less the extra fee the Pen would charge for claiming a kill before I'm legally in need. Not to mention that our office is crowded enough as it is." The reminder of her poverty grated, although she knew that only the best-trained pet Gens could offer the kind of relief which Tallin was providing.
And which the perverts can enjoy every month.
"I tend to forget just how effective the Pen system is at preventing its Sime customers from spending any length of time with Gens," Tallin said. Its tone made the observation a tacit apology, although its steady nageric support never wavered.
"Who'd want to?" Eskalie asked rhetorically. She got to her feet before her unwelcome traveling companion decided to assist her, her knees wobbling only a little. Pleased with her recovery, she mounted Star, albeit with less than her usual grace.
Tallin watched closely as she settled gingerly into the saddle, seeking a position where the rag wouldn't be too uncomfortable, then mounted itself. "If you can manage to keep a reasonable pace, we can be in Zarokka before the bank closes this evening," it said, guiding the chestnut past Star. "Once we've got the proof that the loan is a forgery, we can find you a comfortable bed for the night.
"You seem awfully sure that the case will go your way," Eskalie commented, as Star followed the other horse without waiting for guidance. "Particularly when your...son...didn't accompany his mother on the journey during which the alleged loan agreement is supposed to have been signed."
"Of course I'm sure that Nilba didn't borrow money from Councilman Whilly," the Gen said. "You see, I did accompany my Sectuib on that journey. Unfortunately, my testimony isn't acceptable in a court of law."
"I should hope not!" The Killer Gen's nager was persuasive enough to convince a jury that black was white, as long as the creature believed the lie itself. However, if Nilba actually had been driven to ask the elder Whilly for a loan, she might well have left the Gen behind, to avoid the possibility that the Councilman would zlin it as a convenient source of collateral. She might also have been too embarrassed to tell anybody what she'd done. Shen, that's the sort of information a woman might not tell her own husband, much less her pet Gen.
And would a Gen necessarily know a loan contract from a recipe for spiced trin? While it was true that the Gen had been carrying Califf's cash, holding a purse wasn't the same thing as holding the purse strings. Gens were property, and could not make contracts, earn wages, inherit an estate, sell or purchase goods, or handle money in any other fashion. How, then, could any Gen claim to understand finance?
Shaking her head, Eskalie dismissed the Gen's assurance as wishful thinking. As the miles went by, she concentrated on staying in the saddle. True to its promise--or threat--Tallin set a brisk pace, although it was careful to pause every hour or so and let her briefly adjourn to the bushes.
When their trail joined the Zarokka eyeway, three miles outside the city, they began to meet fellow travelers again. Tallin reined the chestnut in until the two horses were trotting side by side, allowing the passing Simes to assume that Eskalie was leading it, instead of the reverse.
The outer, foggy layer of the Gen's nager had thickened as they came within zlinning range of other Simes. It obscured the golden furnace beneath, and made the creature zlin almost ordinary. Somehow, Tallin managed to accomplish this trick without interrupting the steady spotlight of attention which was holding her pain at bay. If anything, its strength and efficacy increased as the Gen stopped scanning the surrounding hillsides for bandits.
The added support allowed Eskalie to wave off her fellow travelers' many offers to buy Tallin with an appropriate degree of brisk confidence.
The detective couldn't avoid attracting attention as they entered the outskirts of Zarokka and began winding their way towards the financial district. The pedigreed horses and pet Gen were too obviously of top quality for the curious to overlook them, and the possibility of some first-rate gossip. However, to Eskalie's surprise and relief, most of the curious onlookers appeared uncertain as to her identity.
So much for my childish assumption that as the Morlin heiress, I'm so important that everyone in town would recognize me as a matter of course.
The irony amused her for a moment, then she shrugged it off. In Tormin, she was widely recognized as the talented junior partner of Kirlin Security and Investigations. That was far more satisfying than being known as her parents' eccentric daughter.
With that thought to buoy her, she was able to hold her head high as she halted Star in front of the large stone building on Main Street which was the center of her parents' financial empire. With the casual ease of the very wealthy, she reached into the well-filled purse Tallin had handed her that morning and withdrew the smallest coin available. It was still large enough to set three urchins scrambling for the privilege of holding Star. With a mental note to claim the tip as a business expense, Eskalie handed her reins to the winning urchin.
The detective had intended to leave Tallin with Star. She didn't want the dangerous creature to start making trouble in her parents' bank if the investigation didn't go its way, or if it simply took longer than expected. Certainly, Main Street was safe enough. People poor and desperate enough to steal a kill (or anything else) were kept away from the exclusive area by a small army of private security guards.
However, Tallin had other ideas. Without hesitation, it dismounted, handed the chestnut's reins to the urchin, and took up a position six inches from her left arm. Its steady beam of attention never wavered.
Eskalie's left-arm laterals retreated up their sheaths, cringing away from the Killer Gen's nearness. However, she had often seen perverts traveling with their Gens in a similar fashion. After a moment's reflection, she prudently decided not to attempt forcing Tallin to act against what was obviously careful training. Instead, she swept through the heavy, metal-reinforced oak doors, trying to pretend that she always traveled with a pet Gen at her elbow.
Eskalie surveyed the lobby with the confident, possessive arrogance of her heritage. A walnut-paneled counter partitioned off the back third of the spacious room, and a bored teller sat behind it, ready to handle deposits or withdrawals. Behind the teller, she could see the doors to her parents' offices down a short hall. Her parents had chosen the offices so that they could monitor happenings in the lobby, without making themselves too accessible to every lorsh with a whim to deal directly with the owner.
However, the observation worked both ways. Eskalie couldn't zlin through the insulated teller's cage, but she could see easily enough that both doors were fully closed. Long experience led her to conclude that both of her parents were out at the moment.
Suppressing a sigh of relief mixed with disappointment, Eskalie glanced to her right, to the clerks' offices. Jan Yarnan's office was occupied, by one woman only. Eskalie didn't recognize the nager, but she hadn't had a chance to zlin Jan in the few days between her changeover and her abrupt departure from Zarokka.
The teller's face was as unfamiliar to Eskalie as his nager. However, the man obviously recognized money when he zlinned it, even through the insulation provided by the metal cage. His nager assumed an eager servility, but the projection was forced, and it didn't cover the man's resentment of her presumed status and life of ease.
If only he knew...
"Can I be of service, N'vet?"
"Perhaps you can," Eskalie answered with polite condescension. "I wish to speak with Jan Yarnan."
"Do you have an appointment?" With two tentacles, the teller retrieved his desk calendar and made a show of examining it.
The detective led a trace of irritation color her nager. "No, I don't have an appointment. I merely have important business which requires Miz Yarnan's immediate attention."
Tallin's beam of attention solidified, with undertones of reproof underlying the steady support. Obviously, the creature was displeased with her show of temperament.
That's just what I require when trying to handle this lower-class lorsh: a critic.
"And what is the nature of your 'business' with Miz Yarnan?" the teller asked, oozing skepticism.
Like many other minor officials, the teller obviously enjoyed exercising his power to inconvenience others. Throwing out his chest, he began what was obviously a well-rehearsed speech. "You realize that Miz Yarnan is a busy woman, whose work is vital to our bank's operation. She doesn't have time to speak to every young lady who comes through the door. Not even ones as pretty as you." The man's oily voice assumed an avuncular note as he continued. "Now, why don't you tell me why you're here. It may be that I can solve your problem, and then you won't be put in the awkward position of interrupting an important bank official. Believe me, you'd find that very embarrassing, Miz...?" The teller raised a politely interrogative eyebrow.
"Morlin," the detective supplied. "Eskalie Morlin."
The teller stiffened in ill-concealed alarm.
"I believe I am better able to judge whether my business really requires Jan's attention than you are," Eskalie continued relentlessly. "Particularly since you've been working here less than a year. Now, since neither you nor Jan is currently occupied serving other customers, perhaps you would trouble yourself to announce me? Before my parents return and find you playing your childish power games with their daughter?"
"Yes, Tuib. Of course, Tuib. Right this way, Tuib..."
Eskalie swept in the man's wake, nose in the air as befitted the debutante she had once been. Tallin stayed glued to her shoulder as if held on a short chain. The Gen was showing much more interest in its surroundings than was strictly necessary for its role as a pet, but at least it was quiet, and its nager was as calm and unprovocative as Eskalie had ever seen it.
This didn't prevent Jan from allowing a stab of desire to escape when she first zlinned its unusual nager. Recovering quickly, the clerk turned her attention to the Gen's ostensible owner, and real pleasure colored her otherwise bland nager.
"Tuib Eskalie!" she exclaimed, with the familiarity of a long-time family retainer. She invited Eskalie to take the best of the visitor's chairs with a deferential wave of two tentacles and sent her junior colleague for tea. "And use the good china," she reminded him. "Tuib Eskalie isn't just another politician begging for a loan, after all."
"Now, then," she said, settling back in her own chair and twining her tentacles in an attentive pose. "While we're waiting for our tea, you must tell me about this investigative work you've taken up."
Her expert eye tallied up the retail value of Eskalie's one good outfit and the Gen standing with ostensible tameness behind her chair. She added it to the heavy purse at the detective's belt, and drew some very understandable, if totally erroneous, conclusions about the state of Eskalie's personal finances. "You seem to be doing quite well at it."
The detective was quite happy to allow Jan the misconception. She knew the clerk would be questioned closely about their conversation when her parents discovered her visit. She couldn't bear the thought that they might learn she was wearing patched clothes most days, because she couldn't afford replacements and Pen taxes as well.
"Even here in Zarokka, we've heard that you were involved in resolving that embezzlement at the military Pens. It must have been very exciting."
"You could say that," Eskalie agreed, although "harrowing" would be a better adjective. It was quite obvious to her that Jan had a highly romanticized idea of her chosen profession. She gave a brief and highly edited account of the case, which sparked some hidden amusement in Tallin. Fortunately, the Gen's training held, and it didn't try to interrupt with its own version of events.
"But enough of my work," the detective concluded, as the much-subdued teller finally delivered the tea and departed, closing the office door politely behind himself. "What has been going on in Zarokka since I left? Is your father doing well?"
Jan paused in pouring the trin, her nager contracting in grief. "He died two weeks ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that," the detective said, letting her nager reflect her sincere sympathy--and hoping Jan wouldn't zlin Tallin's too closely.
Jan shrugged. "He was twenty-two years past changeover, and as frail as you would expect. He started having trouble with his kills last spring." She looked at Eskalie a bit apologetically. "There really isn't much to tempt one in a Gen from the Pens, you know."
It was obvious that she believed Eskalie didn't know, because no Morlin would ever get a kill from the common Pen. The detective nodded encouragement, deciding that it really wasn't necessary to explain just how well acquainted she was with the inadequacies of Pen stock.
"I was able to get a good kill for him last month, though, and that helped a great deal. For two weeks, he was almost himself again. Then he hit turnover, went into convulsions, and died." Jan shook her head, obviously still trying to assimilate the shock. "Your parents have been very understanding, but of course, there's so much to be done here at the bank..."
"It's been a busy summer?"
"Yes. You did hear that the wheat crop failed in some areas, didn't you?"
"Well, that's caused the kind of readjustments you'd expect. Some farmers want loans, some went bankrupt. People are moving to places where they can find work, and some of the factory owners are expanding to take advantage of the cheap labor. All the confusion has disrupted trade. Theft is up in those regions, too, so we're writing more insurance policies, and investigating more claims. For instance, just the other day..."
Eskalie listened with unfeigned interest. It was exactly this sort of boring number-chopping which had driven her to run away, rather than be trapped behind a desk. She had been quite contented in Tormin, and hadn't really missed no longer having her laterals pointed towards the Territory government's nager. However, the familiar surroundings, and the familiar details of running a financial empire, came perilously close to making her feel homesick.
"Are you planning to visit long?" Jan asked, when Tallin's growing hunger, and growing impatience, made it clear to both Simes that the conversation would have to be concluded soon.
"Not this time, I'm afraid," the detective said with genuine regret. "I'm here to collect some information for a case I'm working on. Perhaps you could assist me."
As Eskalie had hoped, Jan's nager brightened at the prospect of being involved, however peripherally, in the "adventurous" life of a real professional investigator. "Of course I'll help, in any way I can," she assured the detective.
Satisfied that she had zlinned her Gen, Eskalie moved in for the kill. "The case involves the disposition of a wagonload of trade goods, which were seized in partial payment for a delinquent debt. However, the debtor is dead, and her son believes that the loan never occurred. He insists the documentation used to obtain the confiscation order is a forgery. The creditor's son disputes this, of course, but neither party has first-hand knowledge of their respective parents' activities during the crucial time period. The sum of money is not large"--she named the figure--"but it's obvious that both parties feel strongly about their claims."
"Those are often the messiest situations," Jan remarked, so caught up in Eskalie's story that a sympathetic apprehension flickered through her nager.
"Indeed," the detective agreed. "There was a certain amount of unpleasantness, and now there is a criminal assault charge as well as the wagonload of goods at stake. Fortunately, the loan was made through Morlin Bank, and the alleged debtor's representative--" there was really no reason to inform the clerk that Califf's "representative" was the Gen standing so tamely behind her"--has retained my services to discover the truth of the matter. If I could trouble you to give me a look at the original paperwork..."
"Of course," Jan murmured. "If you would give me the particulars, I'd be happy to look it up."
"The loan was made last spring. The borrower was the former Sectuib in Dar, and the creditor of record is Councilman Whilly."
Jan's nager flared alarm as a loud, inarticulate shriek reverberated through the lobby, shattering the calm, businesslike hush of the bank. Eskalie gasped as a surge of adrenaline negated all of Tallin's careful work. The Gen itself somehow managed not to startle.
The office door was well insulated against zlinning to protect customers' privacy, but the soundproofing was less rigorous. The office's inhabitants could clearly hear the sound of running footsteps, as a Sime approached them under augmentation. Jan opened her largest desk drawer and snatched up the length of metal pipe she kept to discourage thieves and dissatisfied customers.
Eskalie was also no stranger to the possibility of attempted mayhem. She jumped to her feet and faced the door, taking a few steps to the side to get clear of her chair and the Gen. Sesfin might not think much of her street fighting skills, and her crouch owed more to her abdominal discomfort than to any martial expertise, but she hoped that she wouldn't totally disgrace her colleagues in Tormin if it came to a fight.
Her main worry was that Tallin might choose to participate. Far from staying sensibly to one side while the Simes took care of the problem, the Gen had come to the same dangerous state of alertness it had exhibited when it had been preparing to come to its owner's defense. She had seen Dar's trained Gens in action, and knew that any such performance would completely destroy her ability to pass the creature off as a simple pet.
The door slammed open, revealing the source of the disturbance. The detective barely managed to halt her lunge as she zlinned the identity of the newcomer.
"Eskie!" Gretta Morlin shrieked, her nager ringing with astonished delight. "It really is you!"
Eskalie catapulted into her mother's arms, just as she had done when she was a child. For a moment, it seemed that nothing had changed, but then the childish illusion of parental strength shattered. She had last zlinned her mother two days after her changeover, before she had learned to interpret her new perceptions. Now, she knew that the quivering instability in her mother's field was a sign of aging. There was more gray in the fashionably styled hair, as well.
"Why didn't you warn us you were coming for a visit?" Gretta Morlin demanded, when she had restored a veneer of her usual impeccable dignity to her nager. It was a fragile illusion: her right-arm dorsals clutched Eskalie's wrist with the desperation usually reserved for securing one's kill, as if she was afraid that her daughter would disappear once more.
Bracing herself against the inevitable disappointment, Eskalie answered, "I'm not here for a visit, Mother. I'm tracking down some financial information for a case I'm working on, and I've got to be on the road back to Tormin at dawn tomorrow."
Gretta's nager quivered as she absorbed the news, then settled into a facade of determined cheerfulness. "Well, that means we've got the whole night to catch up. Have you already told Jan what information you require?"
"Then she'll have it ready for you to pick up at dawn tomorrow." A warning edge to her nager served to inform the clerk that if the desired documentation was not produced on time and in good order, the consequences would be severe. "Meanwhile, you're coming home for the night."
"I had thought to stay at an inn, rather than disrupt the house with an unannounced guest..." Eskalie argued tentatively. Her mother had always insisted that the mark of a true aristocrat was consideration for her servants.
"Nonsense." Gretta dismissed the thought with the flick of a graceful tentacle. "You're not a guest, you're family. We've kept your room ready, so there's no reason to feel you're imposing."
Recognizing an unstoppable force when she zlinned it, Eskalie surrendered gracefully and allowed herself to be herded out of the office. Tallin trailed obediently behind her. She told herself that she didn't zlin the amusement in the Gen's nager.
The Morlin town house occupied half a block of Zarokka's best residential district. While small compared to the family's country estate, it was still larger than the building which housed Kirlin Security, not to mention being in better repair. The grounds were carefully landscaped to give an impression of space, and the illusion was reinforced by the selyn-insulating stone of the high wall surrounding the property, which cut the ambient nager of the city to almost rural standards.
As Eskalie and her mother turned their horses through the wrought iron gate, the detective saw a curtain flutter in the attic of the servant's wing. She smiled, remembering the times she had relied on the cook's lookout to warn her of her parents' return.
She hoped Lorn wasn't too upset now that he knew he had an unexpected guest to feed, as well as a Gen.
Jev the groom met them at the house, warned of his employer's arrival by his own lookout. He accepted the reins of Gretta's mount with his left hand while using one right-arm tentacle to tug respectfully at the lock of hair which persisted in falling over his eyes. His cow-brown eyes widened as he recognized Eskalie, and he hurried to take Star's reins as well.
This left him with both hands occupied when Tallin dismounted. Caught unprepared, and unused to handling anything but the heavily sedated Pen Gens, Jev automatically reached for the third set of reins with his right dorsals. Gretta tensed, anticipating a flare of Gen alarm. However, her apprehension proved unnecessary. With a confidence which no undrugged Gen should display around a strange Sime, the Killer Gen blithely passed the chestnut gelding's reins off to the groom's tentacles and followed Eskalie through the front door.
It felt to the detective as if she'd lived in Tormin for most of a lifetime, not just seven months, but the front hall looked exactly as she'd left it. The late afternoon sun shone through the stained glass window above the door, casting an image of a spring garden on the gleaming wood floor. The clean scent of furniture polish drifted from the deceptively simple table by the side of the door, and from the scrolled banister of the main staircase which swept with dignified elegance to the second floor.
As usual on her turnover day, Eskalie wanted nothing so much as a chance to lie down and rest, as far away from any excitement as humanly possible. However, that was not a realistic hope. Kirra the butler was quickly summoned by the footman who had opened the door. Eskalie might have spent the past seven months living in poverty among the lower classes, but she was not so lost to good manners as to reject the warm welcome the woman extended on behalf of the entire staff. With the discipline instilled upon her by the exclusive Sommerin Academy, she even managed a credible reply, expressing her happiness to be in her childhood home once more.
Before Eskalie could escape upstairs to her room, on the pretext of refreshing herself after her long day's ride, brisk footsteps in the hall announced the arrival of Rossil Morlin.
Eskalie's last encounter with her father had not been notable for its courtesy. Quite the opposite. Things might have turned out differently if she had chosen to wait a few days until after her father had killed, or if she'd had more than three days' experience at distinguishing other nagers from her own. As it was, when she had announced her desire to strike out on her own, just three days after her changeover, he had forbidden it in an outburst of need-induced temper. Instead, he had insisted that she settle down in one of the bank's spare offices and begin to learn the family business. Goaded by his anger, which she had been too young to separate from her own, she had refused. Her rebellion had sparked such uncontrolled rage that she had left secretly that same night, without even saying good-bye to her mother.
The detective debated making a break for the door, but it was too late. With the determined cheerfulness which had gotten her through more than one awkward party, Gretta had already announced, "Rossil, zlin who's come to visit. It's Eskalie!"
Any hope that Rossil Morlin had forgotten--or forgiven--her defiance was shattered the instant she zlinned the cold anger diffusing through his nager. "So it is," he agreed.
Eskalie took an involuntary step backwards, almost bumping into Tallin. The Gen put a steadying hand on her back, and the soothing closeness of its unruffled nager allowed her to say calmly, "Hello, Father."
"'Hello, Father,'" Rossil mimicked savagely. "Do you hear that, Gretta? The girl disappears without a word of warning, and for seven months we hear absolutely nothing from her. No messenger, no letter, nothing. We wouldn't even have known she was in Tormin if my scapegrace, irresponsible little brother hadn't talked her into taking on the Forst Genfarm matter. Then she walks in here as if nothing happened. 'Hello, Father,' indeed!"
Even as she braced herself against her father's anger, Eskalie reflected that only Rossil Morlin would describe the much-decorated General Rabin Morlin, Commander of the Border Patrol's Eastern Division, in such terms.
Gretta seemed to share that assessment. "Now, Rossil," she chided him gently. "Don't you think you're overreacting?"
"Overreacting?" The elder Morlin's outrage was overdone, but no less sincere for that. "All we hear for seven months is that she's decided to become a professional investigator, of all things." His tone would have made it impossible for Eskalie to miss his low opinion of her chosen profession even if she'd been hypoconscious. "We spend seven months thinking she's living in the back room of some filthy third-floor office in a crumbling building in the worst section of town, occupied by prostitutes and pawnbrokers and who knows what else. We spend seven months worrying that our little girl is wearing patched clothes and taking high-risk jobs she doesn't want, just so she can pay her Pen taxes--"
Although Kirlin Security's office wasn't in quite the worst section of town, the rest of Rossil's description was so unintentionally accurate that the detective couldn't prevent herself from flinching. Fortunately, her father was too angry to zlin past his own nager.
"And now," Rossil addressed himself directly to his daughter, "you finally condescend to drop by when you're in town, decked out in the latest fashion, with two fine horses and a pet Gen few could afford, and a full moneybag at your belt just in case we didn't manage to properly asses the rest of your possessions. No, Gretta," he turned back to his wife, "I don't think I'm overreacting at all."
"That is quite enough, Rossil," Gretta announced, with a firmness even her husband was forced to respect. "I'll not have you quarreling in front of the servants. Go get dressed for dinner. Eskalie, you'll want to bathe after your journey. I'll send a maid to help you shortly. Kirra, have Eskalie's Gen put in the holding room, and see that it's fed. We will eat in one hour."
"Very good, N'vet."
Given this golden opportunity to retreat with at least the semblance of dignity, Eskalie fled the battlefield. She was already at the top of the stairs before it occurred to her to wonder whether it was a good idea to leave the Killer Gen in the tentacles of the innocent, unknowing family servants. However, the mention of food had apparently been enough to convince Tallin to behave. It was obediently following one of the footmen towards the back of the house, just like the pampered pet her parents believed it to be.
Once in the holding room, the Gen's ability to cause trouble would be strictly limited. The cage locks required tentacles to open, so Tallin's lockpicks would do it no good. The insulation provided by the metal bars and stone walls would prevent it from using its nager to control the servants. For once, she had some assurance that the creature would stay where it was put, without harming the persons or property of its unwitting hosts.
Dismissing the Killer Gen, she turned her attention to surviving the more immediate threat: dinner with her father. At the moment, her stomach was rebelling at the very thought of food. Furthermore, her tension was rapidly undoing the soothing effect of Tallin's nager, and she found herself hunching over, massaging her belly to ease the pain.
I hate turnover.
As her mother had promised, her room was untouched. It was almost eerie to see it, as if her changeover and the past seven months had never happened. It made her feel like a child again: the protected, pampered daughter of a wealthy house, and not the successful, if poverty-stricken, junior partner of Kirlin Security and Investigations. She couldn't help making a tour of the room, reacquainting herself with a past which had at times during the past months felt like an improbable dream.
Alongside the books and trinkets she had accumulated at school were the toys with which she and her best friend Helka Arslan had whiled away so many happy childhood hours. She picked up a toy horse, resting a tentacle lightly on the chipped ear it had acquired during a particularly strenuous game of "Border Patrol". She had lost the coin toss that day, and been forced to play the Gen side of the conflict, while Helka gleefully directed the brave (and victorious) Sime army.
In the end, Eskalie had won the more important coin toss: she had changed over, and Helka had established, to the embarrassment of her family. She was somewhere across the border now, living among the Wild Gens. Her sister had hired Eskalie to see to the matter in a discreet fashion, when the Sommerin Academy had failed to fulfill its promise to do so.
Eskalie had found the job easier than she expected. There had been very little of the Helka she remembered in the bruised and battered creature rescued from the Academy butler's private Pen. The detective was glad she'd helped that particular Gen escape the fate of its less fortunate fellows, but she mourned her childhood friend Helka as dead.
Setting the toy horse down, Eskalie turned to more practical concerns. The closet still contained its assortment of fashionable clothing. Eskalie had grown a bit since her changeover, but with a little experimentation, she was able to find a suitable dinner dress. It spared her the necessity of admitting to the servants that she owned exactly two respectable outfits, both of which were dirty.
She left the dress on the bed for the maid to press, and retired to the bathroom for a half hour's soak in the hottest water she could stand. By the time the maid arrived with a warmed towel, she felt marginally human again.
Dinner was every bit as awkward as Eskalie had feared. It was obvious that Gretta had ordered her husband not to quarrel with their daughter. It was equally obvious that Rossil was obeying under duress. He ate in silence, scowling into his plate, although Lorn's cream of onion soup was delicious and in no way deserved such disapproval.
This left Gretta to carry the conversation, which she did with her usual impeccable style. Eskalie did her best to offer appropriate responses, but she hadn't had access to a proper newspaper in months, much less associated with anyone who could be considered truly respectable. Her only contacts with her social peers since she had run away had been in the course of an official investigation. Under the circumstances, she felt it prudent to avoid the topic of her professional activities altogether.
By the time Kirra had directed the footmen in clearing the table, the tension in the ambient was so thick that Eskalie felt she could poke a hole in it with a tentacle. Even Gretta zlinned apprehensive as the family prepared to withdraw to the privacy of the library for the traditional after-dinner conversation.
As Kirra opened a bottle of Rossil's favorite brandy and poured it carefully into a cut glass decanter, Gretta was struck with a sudden inspiration.
"Eskalie, was that a flute case your Gen was carrying at its belt? Has it been trained to play the instrument?"
When the detective admitted that Tallin could play the flute, Gretta insisted that the Gen give them a concert. "There are quite a few nightclubs using Gens with their bands these days. I always thought it was just another fad, but Semma Arslan tells me that they've produced some remarkable effects. Of course, one doesn't believe all the rumors one hears. Why, there's one circulating about a concert in some disreputable shiltpron parlor outside of Sommerin where even the customers who were in hard need ended up post. That's obviously impossible. Still, I admit to some curiosity."
Unlike her mother, Eskalie knew that the rumors had for once understated the truth, since she had been an unwilling witness to the legendary concert. She had accompanied Amsil to Zilmor's shiltpron parlor on the evening Sectuib Califf and a small band of his Householders, along with Tallin and another Gen, had sought refuge there from unruly crowds in the streets. When some of the customers had objected to sharing their drinking establishment with perverts, Zilmor had offered to show them something completely new. She had "borrowed" Tallin from its owner, put it onstage, and kept the entire building completely spellbound for nearly three hours. By the time the Gen had tired, no one had had the energy or inclination to cause trouble.
Eskalie doubted that any of the fashionable clubs had managed to duplicate the phenomenon. Tallin's nager was unique, as was the Gen's interest in music and its confidence around Simes. Most Gens faced with a roomful of drunken Simes would not be able to feel anything but fear. Attractive as that was, it lacked the multidimensional variety the Killer Gen brought to its performances.
The detective had no particular desire to zlin Tallin play again. She found the creature's ability to manipulate the ambient it couldn't zlin both uncanny and unnatural. However, she had even less desire to face her father's wrath. "I'd be happy to have the Gen play for you," she said, before she could think better of it. "I'll fetch it right away."
She slipped out of the room before her father could object to the plan, then detoured by the bathroom long enough to change her rag and collect her thoughts. For once, she was not apprehensive about whether the Killer Gen would obey her. She had never yet zlinned it walk away from an audience.
The holding room was at the back of the house, an unadorned cube of stone which backed up against the kitchen. It was an unusually elaborate example of its kind, guaranteed to preserve the health of valuable Choice Kills. The stone walls kept it cool in the summer, while the common wall it shared with the larger of the two kitchen chimneys provided warmth in cold weather. Fresh air was provided through ceiling vents, and the individual holding cells, each equipped with a cot and toilet facilities, let up to three Gens be accommodated at one time without allowing them to fight or breed.
At the moment, Tallin was the room's only occupant. The Gen was just finishing its dinner when Eskalie arrived: the last of the onion soup and some of the coarse bread the servants ate. Apparently Lorn had elected to dispose of his leftovers, rather than cook up a batch of the porridge which was a Gen's usual fare.
Tallin greeted her with a polite nod from its seat on the cot, then wiped the bottom of the bowl with the last of the bread and popped the morsel in its mouth. Its nager projected mild curiosity as she pulled open the Gen-proof lock fastening the gate to its cell.
"My mother wants to hear you play the flute," the detective explained, leaning against the bars as a particularly severe cramp made her knees wobble. "She's heard that Gen musicians are all the rage in Sommerin."
"I see." Tallin set its supper dishes back on the tray at its feet and stood, inspecting her closely. "You're white as a sheet." It looked down at the yellowed, much-patched linens on its cot, castoffs too old even for servants to use, and corrected itself wryly. "Or at least, white as a sheet ought to be."
"My father is in a very bad mood," Eskalie explained.
"I can't blame him, really," Tallin said, "if you ran off without saying good-bye, and if you haven't written since. I expect he's spent the last seven months imagining all sorts of horrible things happening to you,"
Even distracted by pain, Eskalie had enough sense not to point out that the Killer Gen itself was the most dangerous thing she had met in the course of her career at Kirlin Security. Instead, she grumbled, "I can take care of myself. I'm not a child any longer."
"You don't stop wanting to protect your children from danger when they grow up," Tallin pointed out. "You only have more dangers to fret about, and less ability to do anything about them." For a few seconds, the Gen's powerful nager throbbed as the worry which had preoccupied it since Califf's arrest came to the surface. Then it regained control, and the emotion faded into a businesslike neutrality as the creature nodded towards the cot. "Either way, you're going to have to be alert to handle the situation. Lie down for a moment, and I'll see what I can do about those cramps."
"No!" Eskalie yelped, taking a hasty step backwards. As she zlinned the Killer Gen's hurt surprise, she fumbled for an excuse it might accept. "That would take too long," she attempted weakly.
"It won't take more than a minute or two, if you don't fight me," Tallin countered, "and then you won't be wandering around on the edge of collapse."
"I'll be fine. We shouldn't keep my parents waiting." She opened the gate to the cell a bit wider, and started towards the door, hoping the Gen would follow her out of habit.
"Perhaps I wasn't clear enough," Tallin said, leaning back against the cell's rear wall to illustrate its intention to remain where it was. "I can't possibly provide a performance up to my usual standards if the ambient is distorted by random bursts of pain just at the wrong moments. And after all, I do have my artistic integrity to maintain."
"No treatment, no concert?" Eskalie guessed.
How come I never win this argument? the detective wondered as she reluctantly entered the cell. She stretched out face-down on the cot as the Gen directed, and let the creature place its oversized hands on her lower back.
"Don't fight me," it warned again.
The foggy surface of Tallin's nager evaporated again, but this time the golden core underneath showed nothing but disciplined intent. She gasped as it engaged her own field, then groaned in relief as her knotted muscles relaxed.
In very little more than the promised few minutes, Eskalie was functional again: ready to face the world, if not her father. She had even recovered enough that she remembered to warn the Gen, "Be careful. My father's temper is particularly short when he's hung over, and bank policy does forbid records from being distributed to outsiders--like employees of Kirlin Security."
"I'll be discreet," Tallin promised.
Eskalie wasn't sure that the Killer Gen could keep its promise even if it wanted to do so. She had heard it play twice before, both times accompanied by Zilmor, the disreputable (if talented) shiltpron player who had accosted them on their way out of Sommerin. The detective had ended up with a nasty hangover both times, despite her attempts to avoid zlinning the spectacle.
The first time, during Eskalie's investigation of the Forst Genfarm, Zilmor and her two accomplices had been so overcome by the nageric effects of the music that they had allowed Tallin's nager to lull them into a deep sleep. They had continued to sleep, oblivious, as Eskalie escaped their capture. Not even Yosum Forst's violent death, as Tallin crushed his laterals and discarded the lifeless corpse, had managed to wake them.
The second time, when the Gen had gone onstage at Zilmor's shiltpron parlor, had been just as overwhelming. For the entire three hours, every Sime in the room had been a willing slave to its nager. Even Eskalie and the perverts, who alone appeared to understand what it was doing, were not immune from the effect.
The detective was understandably apprehensive about letting Tallin exert that kind of influence over her parents --or herself. Still, she couldn't think of an acceptable excuse to refuse her mother's request, without confessing some unpleasant truths about her current assignment. She didn't want her parents to learn that, far from being wealthy enough to own a pet Gen, she was so desperate for money that she would accept a Gen--owned by perverts, no less--as an employer.
Tallin zlinned meek enough as it followed her into the library. While she had been gone, Kirra had fetched a wicker stool from the kitchen, tall enough for the Gen's long legs, and placed it near the fireplace in front of the three upholstered chairs that Eskalie and her parents had chosen. As Eskalie took her seat, the Gen moved the stool six inches to the left, into the nageric focal point of the room, and seated itself.
"How did it know to do that?" Gretta wondered, as Tallin began to remove the pieces of its flute from its wooden box and assemble them.
"Training," Eskalie answered glibly, unwilling to admit that she hadn't the faintest idea how the perverts had taught the creature to do such things. Nor did she particularly desire to learn, if it meant spending more time with them.
Any halfway normal Gen would have been alarmed at finding itself the focus of two Simes' attention. (Rossil Morlin was still frowning morosely into his brandy.) However, Tallin's nager revealed nothing but confident anticipation as it raised the flute to its lips.
Eskalie braced herself as the first silvery notes filled the room. However, without the power of a shiltpron to magnify it, the effect was much less overwhelming than she expected. Instead of grabbing control of her field, as it had done in the holding cell, the Gen's nager simply filled the room with a warm glow. The comforting pulse of selyn production reinforced the music, instead of defining it. After a few minutes, the detective managed to loosen her handling tentacles from their death grip around her brandy snifter, and take a cautious sip.
The Gen had chosen to begin with a love song which had been popular in her parents' youth. Gretta started humming along during the chorus, so Tallin played a second verse, embroidering around the melody. Another song by the same composer followed.
Tallin continued with a medley of children's songs and lullabies. Rossil Morlin looked up as it reached "The Bouncing Red Ball." Eskalie could remember her father singing the nonsense song to her, although unlike the Gen's flute, he had not always managed to stay on the same key throughout.
He fell deeper under the spell of the music as Tallin began a popular ballad which celebrated changeover and the joys of a new Sime rediscovering the world. This blended into a more serious song on the same theme which Eskalie had heard performed in the Tormin Market. It viewed the subject from the prospective of a father whose child had just entered changeover, and described the man's mingled hopes and fears as the youngster fought for life, and his musings on the kind of life his child would have. The theme continued with a haunting melody from a revived Ancient opera, in which the new grandmother wonders when her little girl has become an adult herself, for surely it couldn't have been so long since her birth. Eskalie was surprised to zlin the strength of her parents' response. It wasn't just the brandy making them susceptible to Tallin's nager, even unamplified by a shiltpron. The songs themselves were communicating with the elder Morlins in a very fundamental way, reminding them of their love for and pride in their daughter.
It had been easy for the detective to disregard her father's wishes with regard to her chosen profession when his nager had held nothing but anger at her for rejecting his carefully laid plans for her future. It was much harder to do so when his anger had gone, letting her zlin how very much he cared about her, and how much he wanted to pass the Morlin heritage on to her.
The Morlin heritage was important to Eskalie, too. She was proud of her parents and the power they wielded in Nivet Territory affairs. If she were honest, she would even have to admit that her current career as the junior member of Kirlin Security, interesting as it was, didn't quite live up to the family standards. Even her black-sheep Uncle Rabin had reached the rank of General in the Border Patrol.
It was during this moment of doubt that her mother asked quietly, "Why didn't you even say good-bye, Eskie?"
Eskalie tried and failed to prevent the wave of guilt which swept over her at the hurt in Gretta's nager. "I couldn't," she admitted. "If I had, I'd never have had the strength to leave."
"Would that have been such a disaster?" Rossil demanded bitterly. "Most people would sell their children to the perverts to gain the position you walked away from. Why did you do it?
Tallin had stopped playing a recognizable tune as they began to talk, instead letting the flute wander in seemingly random phrases. The soft notes formed a soothing background, blunting the negative emotions which threatened to overwhelm the ambient.
Instead of just pointing out that as an adult, she wasn't required to consult them before leaving, Eskalie found herself groping for a serious answer to her father's question. She found inspiration in a collection of notes which sounded almost like the chorus of "If I Changed, I Wouldn't Be Me", a particularly lowbrow ditty Sesfin liked to sing. It was a comic tune in which the errant lover persuaded his sweetheart to forgive one obnoxious (or sometimes criminal) act after the other, because well-bred behavior would render him unrecognizable. However, properly applied, the theme suggested an argument which her father might be able to accept.
"Great-grandmother Tuin escaped from Gen Territory, and made her way as a junker until she found that cache of jewels in the Ancient ruins and was able to settle down," she began tentatively. "Grandfather used part of the money to buy luxury trade goods, and multiplied his stake tenfold by running them to Gulf Territory. You and Mother took those profits, founded Morlin Bank and Trust, and turned it into one of the most powerful financial institutions in Nivet Territory."
"And now you want to throw it all away."
"No!" Eskalie's tentacles--and her abdomen--knotted in frustration. Tallin's attention rested on her for a moment, calming her and blocking the pain, and she tried again.
"Don't you understand? Every Morlin has used the family fortune to build something new. Even Uncle Rabin found a challenge in running the Border Patrol. Morlin Bank is a settled institution now, and the two of you will be making all the important decisions for years to come. What challenge is there for me in sitting behind a desk all day, doing routine work that any clerk could manage? And what harm am I doing by taking a few years to see what I can do on my own?
Eskalie zlinned her father's anger rise again--only to dissipate against the music. It was then that Eskalie realized she and her parents were every bit as much under the Gen's spell as its previous audiences. Its control of her emotions was so pervasive that Eskalie couldn't even summon the outrage she knew she ought to feel at what was being done to her--and her unsuspecting parents.
Besides, it was a relief not to have to deal with her father's temper. Instead of yelling at her, he replied quite calmly, "If you just wanted to take some time off, why didn't you choose something sensible? A professional investigator's life is dangerous, Eskie."
"I know it can be, Father," Eskalie admitted. With the Killer Gen in the same room with them, she could hardly deny it. "But our family hasn't reached its current position by refusing to take risks. For every junker who manages to make a good find, there are a dozen others who fall to weather, wild animals, or other disasters. Grandfather actually traveled regularly through the lands held by the Wild Gens, and you know what they do to any Sime they catch. Even you and Mother took real chances when you started the bank. Those first few years, you could easily have ended up on the streets, getting your kills at the government Pens."
"Not all risks are equal," Rossil pointed out. "It's one thing to take risks when you have something real to gain. It's quite another to take chances out of a mistaken sense of adventure."
"If I hadn't taken the risk of personally investigating the Forst Genfarm, Uncle Rabin wouldn't have had enough Gens to hold the border this past summer," Eskalie answered quietly. "I think preventing the Wild Gens from marauding clear to Zarokka was worth placing myself in a bit of danger."
She held up a silencing tentacle as her father drew breath to protest. "I'm well aware that the fate of Nivet Territory doesn't hinge on most of my cases. On the other hand, most of them don't entail a fraction of the risk, either." At least, the ones which don't involve dragging that Killer Gen over half the Territory. "However, every case is important to the person who hires me. I'm good at what I do, Father, and I like making life better for my clients. I can't give that up for a make-work position at the bank, processing loan applications which could just as easily be left to Jan or one of the other clerks. Please don't ask me to."
A coaxing run of notes on the flute punctuated her plea for understanding. For the first time since they had argued just after her changeover, Rossil actually seemed to consider her position. He wasn't happy about it, she could zlin, but his hurt anger was gradually replaced by grudging acceptance.
"I still think you're wasting your talents," he grumbled. "But they're your talents to waste. Any time you want to quit adventuring, there will be a place for you at Morlin Bank." He shook his head. "I should have known better than to think I could make you settle down without trying your wings first, Eskie. It didn't work when my father tried it on me, either!"
"I guess I'm a typical Morlin after all," the detective admitted. She raised her brandy snifter in a toast. "To the Morlin clan: may our adventures always be profitable."
Her parents drank the toast. Gretta beamed as the reconciliation was sealed, then returned to more practical concerns. "Eskalie, that Gen of yours has about played its fingers off. I've given orders for the old blue cot to be brought up to your room. You'll want it close by when you sleep, I expect."
"But..." the detective protested.
"Don't argue, dear. You've been having a miserable turnover, and you know it. Your grandmother used to swear that having a Gen in the room when she slept did wonders for that sort of trouble."
Eskalie had a sudden vision of Tallin putting her helplessly to sleep, then roaming the house at will, lockpicks in hand, poking its nose into her parents' offices and examining the bank records stored in them. "I don't have a proper chain for it..." she began.
Gretta dismissed the objection with a flick of one tentacle. "The Gen's well trained. I doubt it'll try to run away."
I should be so lucky. "You're right, it won't," she admitted. At least, not until it has the evidence required to free its owner.
One of the housemaids was waiting to help Eskalie change into her nightdress and brush out her hair. The girl was obviously new to the job. She was careful not to give offense by zlinning Tallin, while shooting many curious glances in the creature's direction. As it meticulously cleaned its flute and put the instrument away in its wooden box, she became so distracted that she managed to snarl Eskalie's hair. Her attempts to unsnarl it resulted in painful pulling. Finally, the detective reclaimed her hairbrush and dismissed the maid brusquely to her duties, waving off the woman's tearful apologies.
"That was unkind," Tallin said, retrieving nightclothes of its own from its saddlebags, which had been placed with Eskalie's in a corner of the room.
"I won't tell Kirra, if that's what you're worried about, and the woman will know better next time." With comb and brush, the detective cautiously began to repair the damage. "Now then," she continued, working the comb through a particularly stubborn knot, "just what did you think you were doing down there? Were you trying to blow your cover clear to the moon?"
Tallin raised a surprised eyebrow, although its nager remained calm. "Just what do you mean by that?"
"That...performance of yours. It's a good thing my parents have never owned a pet Gen, or they'd have known you were never trained at a Genfarm. And if they'd had any idea what you were doing to us, I'd be out on the street now, and you'd be in the holding room waiting for destruction."
Hurt innocence suffused the Killer Gen's deadly nager. "What did I do that was so terrible?" it asked.
Eskalie gaped at it. "What did you do?" she repeated, astonished that even a Gen could be so dense. "I asked you to provide some after-dinner entertainment, not to meddle in my and my parents' private affairs!"
The eyebrow arched again. "I'd hardly call that meddling," Tallin objected, putting on its nightshirt. "Your mother wanted desperately to prevent a family fight. You and your father both wanted a chance to explain your positions. All I did was keep you both calm enough to listen to each other--and remind you how much you have in common." It folded its shirt neatly and placed it in its saddlebag. "Although it certainly is easier to mediate a quarrel when it's possible to actually talk."
Eskalie found herself gaping at the Gen, astonished as a country laborer on his first visit to the big city.
The Gen turned around and looked her in the eye. "Would you rather have left tomorrow as you came, still not on speaking terms with your own father?"
"That's better than being tricked into making up by a manipulative..," Eskalie broke off as a flash of annoyance reminded her just how deadly the Gen could be when provoked.
"That's your pride speaking, not your intelligence," Tallin said firmly, its nager reinforcing its conviction. "I don't think you've really thought it through. Your parents are what: fourteen, fifteen years past changeover? They're reasonably healthy, for non-Householders, but how much longer can you reasonably expect them to live? Two years? Maybe four or five, at most? And once they're gone, it will be far too late to patch up your quarrel."
Eskalie shuddered, remembering the frailty she had zlinned in her mother's nager.
"You're tired and upset," the infernal creature decided. "Think it over until tomorrow morning, and if you still honestly feel that you'd rather not be on speaking terms with your father, you can always pick another fight with him then."
Why am I bothering to argue ethics with a Gen? she wondered. It only did what the perverts trained it to do, after all.
"Look," she said, as a wave of exhaustion sent her staggering towards her bed, "I may have accepted your job, but I didn't agree to let you run my personal life. Just stay out of my business, and we'll get along fine."
It didn't occur to her just then to wonder why she was so suddenly and conveniently tired, and at a time of the month when she usually avoided sleep. Not until Tallin's nager reached out more strongly, urging oblivion, did she realize what it was doing, and by then it was too late.
As Gretta had predicted, Tallin was snoring lightly on the cot when Eskalie woke, just two hours before dawn. Four hours of sleep again. It was unnatural for a Sime to sleep so long and soundly, particularly after turnover, when need nightmares tended to appear with ever-increasing severity as a Sime's kill day approached. However, if Eskalie had suffered any bad dreams, she couldn't remember them.
Which is odd. Considering how prominently the Killer Gen figured in her usual need nightmares, she would have expected its actual presence to make them worse, not to banish them altogether. Especially when she had just endured another demonstration of the ease with which the creature could manipulate Simes.
Tallin had obeyed her wishes in one respect at least. She felt no trace of the hangover she'd experienced after its previous musical performances. The cramps were gone, too. I guess Mother was right about the benefits of sleeping with a Gen in the room. She could certainly never afford to imitate her grandmother and buy a Choice Kill before turnover, but she was human enough to wish it were possible.
However, she wouldn't be able to afford her Pen taxes and claim her drugged, sickly, government-issue kill when she was in hard need if she didn't successfully complete her current case.
The detective bid a reluctant farewell to the clean, lavender-scented sheets, picked up the embroidered silk robe the maid had left at the foot of the bed, and tiptoed for the bathroom, careful not to disturb the sleeping Gen. She showered briskly, luxuriating in the hot water, milled soap, and fluffy towels. When she was clean and dry, she wrapped herself in the silk robe and returned to her room. Zlinning a chambermaid in the hall, she poked her head out and ordered tea for herself and food for Tallin.
She dressed in a clean riding outfit from the closet, unable to bear the thought of putting on yesterday's aromatic clothes. After a brief battle with her pride, she searched her closet for two serviceable pairs of pants and the three plainest shirts she could find, and packed them in her saddlebags. They were still made of much finer material than anything Amsil or Sesfin could afford, and it would be a bit awkward wearing them around the office. However, the clothes she had taken with her seven months before were sadly worn and patched, and she couldn't afford to pass up the opportunity to obtain new ones.
Might as well face the attrition cage for stealing a Choice Kill, instead of raiding the government Pen, she thought, and filled the corners of her saddlebags with undergarments.
The maid arrived with a tray just as she closed the flap on the bulging saddlebags. Eskalie nodded briefly towards the sunny alcove where a polished cherry table gleamed, accompanied by two beautifully carved but sturdy chairs, and bent back over her saddlebags to lace the straps through the buckles. This maid was better trained than last night's: after one astonished glance, she politely ignored the sleeping Tallin as she placed the tray on the indicated table, bobbed her curtsy, and silently withdrew as the detective waved a tentacle in dismissal.
Her luggage secure, Eskalie wandered over to inspect the tray. With no other Gens in the holding room, Lorn had elected to simply double the quantity of oatmeal he made for the stableboys' meal, rather than prepare a separate batch of the grain, dried fruit, and coarsely ground soybean porridge that was a Gen's usual fare. To make up for the nutritional deficiency of the oatmeal, he had added several steaming muffins, cheese, some sliced fruit left over from the previous night's dessert, and a pitcher of fresh milk.
That ought to be enough to satisfy even Tallin's appetite, Eskalie thought as she poured herself a glass of tea.
As if roused by the thought, the Gen turned over and opened its eyes. "Good morning," it said politely, stretching until its joints crackled. "Is that breakfast I smell?"
Eskalie nodded. "Better hurry if you want it hot." She sipped her tea, savoring the flavor of the premium blend, and wished there were a way to smuggle a bit of it back to Tormin as well.
The promise of food was sufficient to get Tallin out of bed. It retrieved a clean shirt from its saddlebags, adjourned briefly to the bathroom, and returned: clean, dressed, and starving.
Eskalie watched in wonder as it began to eat, with a polished neatness that belied the sheer volume of food it was putting away. It caught her staring, and paused to raise a questioning eyebrow. Embarrassed, the detective reached for a muffin, and said the first thing that came into her head.
"The horses will be brought around in half an hour."
Tallin greeted this weak sally with commendable charity, considering that it had been standing at her side when she had issued the order on her way to bed the previous night. "That's just enough time for you to say good-bye to your parents," it observed.
The detective shook her head. "They left for the bank over an hour ago--that's why I had my tea brought up here. I'll see them after I talk to Jan."
"You're proud of your parents' bank, aren't you?" It was a statement, more than a question.
Eskalie had to admit that she was. "It's got more assets under management than any other bank in the Territory, it's more stable than the government, and nobody's ever managed to break into the vault. And not for want of trying, either: there have been more than a dozen attempts. The vault's lock was made by Japora, you know, shortly before her death."
The Gen's nager had gone suddenly neutral at the mention of the famed locksmith, as if it were trying to hide strong emotion. Eskalie zlinned the effect curiously.
"Japora was my mother, you see," Tallin explained.
The detective blinked with astonishment. "Your mother?" It did make a certain weird kind of sense: talent like Japora's was great enough to pass on even to Gen offspring, although Tallin appeared to specialize in picking locks, not making them.
"Yes." The Gen's control over its nager lightened, allowing the detective to zlin a bittersweet sorrow. "I was her apprentice for several years, before her death in a riot." It looked Eskalie in the eye. "We quarreled that morning, and never had a chance to make it up."
Eskalie squirmed at the pointed reminder until Tallin decided that it had made its point and looked away, absently stroking a lump under its shirt, as if seeking comfort.
Gens and children: always depending on amulets and charms for the luck Simes make for themselves. Eskalie had recently cracked a case for her alma mater, the select Sommerin Academy, in which one of the students had stolen some rather valuable objects under the mistaken impression that they would protect him from changeover.
She absentmindedly swallowed, and only then realized that she had just consumed the entire muffin. "I wish you'd stop doing that!" she complained.
Tallin's only response was a feral grin.
It wasn't Jan who met them when they entered the portals of the bank, however, but the two elder Morlins. Their nagers were a disturbing mix of anger, betrayal, and frustration.
"What's wrong?" Eskalie asked, zlinning for the source of the problem. "And where's Jan?"
"Gone!" Rossil Morlin hissed, barely managing to maintain the shreds of the dignity required by a banker in public. "Vanished, fled...and she's taken a saddlebag full of cash and the keys to the vault with her!"
"We came in and found the teller's cage open, and the cash drawer empty," Gretta explained. "We assumed there'd been a burglary, so your father went to Jan's apartment to find out if she'd seen anything."
"There were clothes scattered about, as if she'd been packing in haste," Rossil continued the story. "All the personal items were gone."
"Her office desk was stripped, as well." Gretta spread her tentacles in helpless frustration.
Eskalie held up a tentacle to silence her parents. More used to traveling light than her parents, she had a very good idea just how little money would fit in a saddlebag, especially if one expected to carry a change or two of clothing and some personal effects in addition. The loss was more serious in its implications than for its actual cash value.
"I think we can assume that Jan has left town in a hurry," she said, in the brisk, no-nonsense tone Amsil used with distraught customers. "Fortunately, a career in banking doesn't teach the skills one requires to hide from the law. I expect she'll turn up soon enough. I'm on decent terms with the Tormin sheriff; I'll ask him to put the word out to pick her up when I get back there. A request from a fellow officer always gets more attention than one from a civilian, even if that civilian is a Morlin."
The elder Morlins were staring at their daughter in astonishment, and with the beginnings of respect for her competence in dealing with the emergency.
The detective twined her tentacles thoughtfully, enjoying the unaccustomed admiration. "At the moment, I'm more concerned with why Jan ran at all. She never struck me as the type to exchange a guaranteed kill every month for a life on the run. Did she have excessive debts?"
Rossil Morlin shrugged, spreading his tentacles helplessly. "I only handle the largest accounts personally. You know that."
"Well, that will be easy enough to determine, once the vault's open. Have you sent for the locksmith?"
"That incompetent fool?" Gretta shook her head. "He couldn't open my jewelry box when my maid mislaid the key a few months ago--said Japora's work was way beyond his skill. We'll have to send to Capitol for a locksmith good enough to pick that lock. That will take a week!"
Tallin had been quietly standing at Eskalie's side during the conversation, its nager politely neutral. However, the detective zlinned a flash of eagerness at the mention of Japora's safe.
"Perhaps that won't be necessary," she said. "Let me take a look at it first, anyway. In the meantime, you'd best explain what's happened to the rest of the staff, and get ready to open."
It felt strange to be issuing orders to her own parents, but the two elder Morlins obeyed without question, happy to have been provided with some direction. Eskalie had seen similar responses in the customers who came to Kirlin Security, especially those who were totally unacquainted with crime.
When her parents had bustled off to gather the staff together, Eskalie gestured for Tallin to follow and led the way down the short hallway which led to the vault. The door was an impressively solid construction of ironwood, reinforced by a small fortune in metal bands. The lock was equally solid, set into the metal to prevent a would-be thief from zlinning the tumblers.
Once they were safely out of view, the detective turned to the Killer Gen. "Well, do you think you can pick a lock made by your mother?"
"I'd hate to have to try," Tallin admitted, walking slowly over to the vault door. It reached out to touch the lock, its nager ringing with a peculiar mixture of pride and old sorrow. It stared at the locksmith's trademark for a moment, then shook itself back to normal awareness. "Fortunately, I don't have to."
It reached under the collar of its coarse tunic and pulled free a worn silk ribbon, which it lifted over its head. From the ribbon dangled a ceramic key. The glaze was badly cracked, and worn thin in places from years of handling. Still, when the Gen inserted it into the keyhole and twisted gently, the lock turned with an audible click.
"Where did you get a key to my parents' vault?" the detective demanded.
"I made it," Tallin said quietly. It removed the key from the lock and inspected it thoughtfully, resting a thick Gen finger on the cracked glaze.
"I told you that I was my mother's apprentice," it explained after a moment. "Your parents ordered this lock when I was just beginning to learn her trade. She spent hours teaching me how to make the key properly, and then we had trouble with the old kiln, and the glaze cracked. I was in tears, but my mother just laughed and told me it was a good key, worthy of a master locksmith, and that I should be proud of it. After that, nothing could have persuaded me to part with it." The Gen shrugged. "I've been wearing it ever since."
Tallin's nager showed an unmistakable possessiveness as it replaced the key around its neck, and Eskalie quietly discarded her half-formed plan to leave the key with her parents until Jan was found. Instead, she pulled open the heavy door, augmenting slightly to manage the weight, and stepped through into the vault.
"I doubt that Jan took the time to assemble the information I requested before she fled," the detective remarked. "As long as the vault's open, though, it shouldn't take long to get to the truth."
The vault of the Morlin Bank and Trust was a medium-sized room, with thick stone walls. Along one wall were shelves stacked high with fireproof ceramic boxes, in which customers could store jewelry, papers, or other valuables for a monthly fee. One larger trunk carried the bank's supply of cash, ready for the tellers to disburse to customers. On the opposite wall, a serviceable chair sat in front of a small reading desk. The largest part of the room, however, was devoted to the bank's most valuable possession: the bookcases of heavy ledgers with the details of each customer's account, and the filing cases full of records, deeds, and other official financial documents.
Tallin peered at the closest bookcase, trying to read the embossed numbers on the back of the spines in the dim light. "Where should we begin?" it asked, it nager proclaiming its eagerness to begin proving its son innocent.
Eskalie lit the lamp on the desk. "I will start with Councilman Whilly's account ledger," she announced, then pulled the chair into the middle of the room and pointed firmly at it. "You will sit right there while I do so. The bank records are not a public library, open for general browsing."
Somewhat to Eskalie's surprise, considering its usual intransigence, the Gen settled into the chair without argument. For a moment, she could zlin its worry and impatience, and then its nager settled into a disciplined calm. Instead of focusing on any one spot, it allowed itself to become aware of everything and nothing, spreading an even nageric glow over the vault.
The detective gaped at Tallin for a moment, wondering how the Householders had managed to teach it such a trick, then got to work. Pulling the index of accounts from its spot under the desk, she looked up Whilly's account number, and Jan Yarnan's as well, jotting them down on a piece of scrap paper. A few moment's search located the proper ledgers.
It certainly saves time to zlin the raised numbers on the spines, rather than try to read them in this light, Eskalie mused as she pulled the heavy book from its shelf. Particularly with a Gen in the room.
Pen and ink were much easier to read with the eyes, however, so she brought the ledgers back to the desk. She checked Jan's account first, seeking clues as to why the woman had decided to resign in such a precipitous fashion.
The account activity was as bland and colorless as Jan herself. There were regular deposits from her paycheck, and equally regular withdrawals for rent, Pen taxes for herself and her father, and small amounts of cash for spending money. More recently, there had been doctor's fees, and the total balance, never very large, had begun to spiral down perilously close to nothing. For the last two months, Jan had been living on the edge of bankruptcy.
Shaking her head, Eskalie turned to Whilly's ledger. The first part of the book detailed the daily activity of the account. Ignoring this, Eskalie opened it to the page near the back which listed cross-references to additional accounts owned, loans, mortgages, and other relevant information on file elsewhere in the vault.
The loan was listed, in Jan's neat handwriting, but the morning's events had shaken the detective's previous faith in the woman's honesty. She checked the account activity for the same time, and made an unsettling discovery.
One week before the date listed for the loan, Whilly had almost emptied his personal account into an account belonging to a company called the Businessman's Agricultural Import Alliance. The depletion had been temporary, but on the day listed, Whilly could not have covered the amount of the loan.
"Interesting," Eskalie murmured.
Curious, she pulled the ledger for the company in which the Councilman had invested so much. The Import Alliance appeared to be a small concern, but its members were elite enough to raise Eskalie's eyebrows. Its stated purpose was the importation of new and improved agricultural technology from other Sime Territories.
A substantial improvement in food yields would certainly increase profits on the Genfarms, Eskalie knew, and the investors had put up enough money to outfit a large Raider band, much less a trading expedition. However, it appeared that the Import Alliance had been running into difficulties in actually getting their tentacles on a salable product. The initial seed money was gone, and the loans the company had taken out to supplement it were coming due.
"I think I begin to understand," Eskalie muttered, tentacles lashing in anger.
"Understand what?" Tallin asked. The Gen's diffuse nager condensed as its attention focused on her.
"A sordid little plot which doesn't concern you." The detective closed the ledgers and returned them to their places. "I have, however, been able to determine that the loan documents are most likely a forgery. That means your son was legally defending his goods against a thief, and thus, that the younger Whilly's charge of assault in unlikely to stand up in court."
The Gen's overwhelming relief sent her staggering to lean against the table.
"Don't do that!" she snapped, with the irritation of a Sime just past turnover, and still adjusting to the onset of need.
The projection lightened immediately. "I'm sorry," Tallin apologized.
Eskalie looked at the Gen curiously. "You're awfully relieved, for one who's been maintaining from the start that the loan was a forgery."
"What I know, and what can be proved to the satisfaction of a court, are not necessarily the same thing," the Gen pointed out.
"True," the detective agreed, extinguishing the lamp and herding the Gen out of the vault. She left the door open behind her so the teller could restock his cash drawer, and went to find her parents.
An hour and a half later, Eskalie turned Star off the main road out of Zarokka, down an overgrown path which had been cut by an overly ambitious homesteader. The homestead had long since been burned out by Wild Gens, but the path received just enough traffic to prevent it from disappearing entirely.
For beyond the charred remains of a small cabin and the meadow which had once been a plowed field, a deer trail led almost straight up the mountain to a narrow pass, and down the other side to a narrow valley. It was only about fifteen miles wide, but the Gens patrolled it vigorously, since the land was fertile and the river which cut through the bottom was navigable for most of its length. This, and the steepness of the trail on either side, tended to discourage all but the foolhardy or the desperate from taking this shortcut to Tormin.
Eskalie knew that the climb would be difficult, so she drew rein in the meadow to give the horses a short rest. Dismounting, she took a clean rag from her bulging saddlebags and adjourned to the bushes.
When she returned, she discovered that Tallin had been busy. The nondescript tan tunic of a pet Gen was gone, replaced by a turquoise cotton shirt of a peculiar style. The loose-cut. pleated sleeves extended clear to the Gen's wrists, where they were gathered into wide, tightly fitted cuffs. Over the shirt, it had placed a sleeveless leather vest. It looked like a freshly caught Wild Gen.
"Here," Tallin said, holding out a smaller version of the shirt, this time in blue stripes. "Those pants will pass well enough, but you'd better put this on."
The detective looked at the peculiar garment and grimaced. "No, thank you," she said. "I prefer my own clothes."
The Gen's nager shifted in irritation. "Eskalie, this shortcut is dangerous enough, without you waving your tentacles under the nose of every passing Gen. If you're dressed like you belong, chances are good that no one will look at you too closely." It held out the shirt again. "Put it on."
There was an implacable firmness to the order, and the detective was suddenly reminded once more of just how dangerous the creature could be. Cowed, she reached for the shirt and reluctantly made the change, grimacing at the feel of the material on her tentacle sheathes.
Tallin sighed in exasperation. "Button the cuffs."
"But then I..." Eskalie broke off as she realized what she had started to say.
"Won't be able to use your tentacles?" the Gen completed wryly. "I hope you'll have the sense to keep them sheathed, particularly if we meet anybody. If not, this will be a very short journey--for both of us."
Eskalie retracted her right-arm handling tentacles and used the fingers and tentacles of her left arm to pull the cuff closed and secure the button. It wasn't quite as bad as she had feared: the cuff actually bound her wrist, not her arm, and the loose-fitting sleeves provided enough room that they didn't press against her tentacle sheathes. Still, it was nerve-wracking to realize that she'd have to rip through the cloth before she could use her tentacles in an emergency.
"I feel like I'm wearing those manacles the Gen Border Patrol uses on their prisoners," the detective complained as she fastened the second cuff.
"Believe me," Tallin said, no trace of humor in its nager, "if you'd even gotten a close look at what those torture devices do, you wouldn't be saying that."
"You have?" Eskalie guessed, a bit curious at the strength of the creature's reaction. One didn't normally expect a Gen to feel so personally imperiled by a threat to appendages it would never possess.
The Gen's nager went cold, and its tone didn't invite more questions. After a moment, the detective nodded towards Star and Tallin's chestnut. "The horses have rested long enough. If we're going to try this insane shortcut of yours, we might as well get started."
If it hadn't been for the nagging irritation of the Gen shirt, and the danger into which she was headed, Eskalie would have enjoyed the ride up the mountain. It was a beautiful early fall day, with just a touch of crispness to the air. There were touches of color on the trees, and late flowers blooming in the occasional clearings. Apart from Tallin's nager and her own, there was no living Sime or Gen field as far as she could zlin. She would have thought that they were the first travelers to take this trail, if it hadn't been for the occasional fresh hoofmarks which showed that someone had gone before them.
Star was less accustomed to mountain trails than Tallin's chestnut, so the Gen took the lead as they reached the pass and began to work down a particularly steep section. Eskalie was concentrating so hard on guiding and encouraging her mare that she was caught by surprise when the chestnut suddenly balked at the foot of the slope, throwing up its head in protest.
Eskalie zlinned for the trouble, somewhat hampered by the shirtsleeves, which prevented her from extending her laterals. There was still no other nager within her range, or indeed, any large animals. "What's the matter?" she asked the Gen. "I don't zlin anything."
"It smells like a dead animal," Tallin said as the wind shifted towards them, bringing the killroom odor of excrement and cadaver more clearly, mixed with the scent of drying blood.
"A mountain lion with a deer?" Eskalie guessed. With heels, voice and reins, she forced Star to advance. Tallin made the chestnut follow, holding the beast back just far enough to prevent trouble if the mare started kicking.
They entered a small clearing, and the mare planted its hooves, refusing to go farther. Tallin pulled the chestnut to a halt next to the other horse, looking at the cause of their distress.
"It wasn't an animal," the detective observed, regretting the morning's muffin.
"No, it wasn't," the Gen agreed. "Not entirely, anyway."
Jan's twisted remains lay in the middle of the well-trampled clearing, riddled with at least six bullet holes. It hadn't happened more than a few hours ago; the blood hadn't dried completely. Not far away was the carcass of her horse. It had only one bullet hole, neatly drilled through its forehead, but it was equally dead. One leg, bent at an improbable angle, showed why it had been abandoned. The horse had been stripped of its tack, and there were clothes, papers, and other knickknacks scattered about the ground.
It was easy enough to reconstruct what must have happened. "She took this route to avoid pursuit," the detective said, remembering the fresh hoofprints on the trail. "But she ran into Wild Gens. She stayed ahead of them this far, then her horse tripped and broke a leg. Her pursuers murdered her, put the horse out of its misery, and stole what they wanted of her goods."
"That sounds about right."
She looked at the gaping wounds on the body. "Not a nice way to go, but faster than the attrition cage."
By choosing her timing carefully, Eskalie managed to dismount from the dancing mare without getting trampled or losing her hold on the reins. It would have been less difficult if she could have used her tentacles. She took a moment to calm the mare, then handed its reins to Tallin.
"Here. You hold Star a moment. I want to look around."
She sorted through the trash scattered about the clearing, pitiful remnants of an unspectacular life. The money was gone, of course. The Wild Gens valued gold and silver as much as people. The detective had no interest in the trampled clothing, but she checked the papers to see if they contained anything of interest.
However, the papers were just letters: years' worth of exchanges between Jan and her parents. The detective skimmed one of the early ones, in which Jan's father talked about her then-new job at Morlin Bank. The writing was barely literate, with badly misspelled words littering the page, but his pride in his daughter's accomplishments was unmistakable. It was obvious that to him, the job which Eskalie had rejected as unchallenging make-work was the pinnacle of success.
Suddenly uncomfortable at reading such private thoughts, Eskalie let the paper drift to the ground. With Jan and her parents all dead, and no other family to mourn them that she'd ever heard of, it was best to let these private thoughts return to dust with their makers.
The detective was about to reclaim Star's reins when she caught a glimpse of something half hidden under a shredded red shirt near the body. With sudden hope, she kicked the shirt aside, and crowed when her hope was fulfilled.
"The keys to the vault!" she explained to the curious Gen, holding up the ornately decorated keyring. "That will cool my father's temper, at least a little bit." She slipped then into her belt pouch, then mounted her horse. It was slightly easier than getting off had been: the mare was getting resigned to the smell of death.
Tallin expertly forced the skittish chestnut past the bodies, and Star followed, unwilling to be separated from the only other horse within miles. Both beasts wanted to take the steep trail faster than was strictly safe at first, but they gradually calmed as they outdistanced the upsetting smells of the clearing.
Eskalie couldn't forget, however. She zlinned her surroundings carefully for approaching Gens, glad for the extra range she had gained with turnover. She wasn't one of those hypersensitive Simes who could zlin for miles, but out here where there were no other fields to interfere, she should be able to spot trouble coming in time to do something about it.
To her relief, she zlinned no selyn source but the one on the horse ahead of her as they worked their way down the mountain. The trail ended in an abandoned black walnut orchard. The ancient, overgrown trees had produced a bumper crop over the summer, and the squirrels were busy harvesting the bounty.
Tallin guided the chestnut through the trees. Eskalie followed, careful to avoid the worst of the nuts. They were exactly the right size and shape to lodge in a hoof, laming the animal if they weren't removed promptly.
The Gen halted its horse on the other side of the orchard, where a thick hedge divided the trees from a well-traveled road. It peered through a gap in the foliage and inspected the road carefully, then asked, "Is there anyone within your range?"
"Not that I can zlin."
There was a narrow gap in the hedge not far away. Tallin deftly maneuvered the chestnut through it, then forced the reluctant animal to wade through the drainage ditch on the other side, and up onto the road. Star was no more enamored of getting its hooves wet than the next horse, but with the encouragement of Tallin's mount in front of her, the mare completed the maneuver with minimal trouble.
The Gen road was well constructed and maintained, built on the bed of one of the Ancient's eyeways. It was relatively free of ruts and puddles, and wide enough for two wagons to pass each other without chancing the less hardened surface on the shoulders.
The horses willingly picked up the pace, and they made good time. The fields and orchards on either side of the road had been harvested, and were largely deserted. An occasional small group of Gens or older children could be zlinned, busy with pruning, fence repair, and other fall chores. These were not the dull and docile stock raised on the Genfarms, but alert creatures, displaying a disturbing intelligence as they scanned the area for danger. All had rifles within arm's reach, leaning against a nearby tree or slung across their backs.
The first time they had to pass close by such a group, Eskalie fully expected the Wild Gens to start shooting at her. How could her flimsy disguise possibly prevent them from seeing the Sime in their midst?
She let out a yip of protest when Tallin called out a greeting in the Gen language, and the focused attention of the group converged on them. Star caught her fear and danced nervously. However, the Wild Gens merely returned the greeting, and after a few more friendly exchanges, continued with their work.
"They said that there have been thieves along the road recently, and some small groups of Simes have been spotted on the other side of the river," Tallin translated when they were out of earshot. "Probably Simes on their way home from the Tormin Fair, slipping across the border for a free kill. The local Gen Army post has stepped up its patrols in response. There were some very destructive raids last fall, and they're afraid that the pattern will continue."
Eskalie nodded; the situation was common enough. There were many Simes who didn't care if their raids provoked the Wild Gens to retaliate, as long as those raids didn't come against their own homes.
However, Gen Territory seemed to be remarkably peaceful at present, despite its armed and alert inhabitants. The harvest was almost in, but what was left looked bountiful enough.
"It looks like the fields here escaped the drought and rust," Eskalie commented, looking at four Gens and a handful of children harvesting a well-ripened acre.
Tallin shook its head, pointing at a windmill at the other edge of the field. "The water table's high, so they can irrigate when it's dry. But you're right about the rust. It actually started in Gen Territory, about ten years ago, and has been spreading slowly ever since. However, the agriculture department at New Washington University was doing some work on new wheat strains, and one of them turned out to be resistant to the new rust. That's what's planted here."
It figures that a Gen university would have a department devoted entirely to the production of food, Eskalie thought, amused by the idea.
The detective was beginning to hope that she might survive this insane shortcut when she zlinned disaster cresting the rise behind them, at a brisk trot. "There's a troop of the Border Patrol behind us! Ten of them, and they're headed right this way," she warned, looking frantically around for cover. However, the fields on either side had been freshly harvested, and the hedges were neatly trimmed: not nearly high enough to hide a horse behind. There wasn't so much as a barn or haystack in sight.
Tallin reached out and grabbed the mare's reins just below the bit, preventing Eskalie from clapping heels to her mount and bolting for safety. "If you run, the Patrollers will know you have something to hide," the Gen warned. "Act like you belong, and they won't look twice at you."
The detective gave Tallin a disbelieving stare. "You plan to try bluffing your way by a troop of alert Patrollers, like you did with that other group of Gens back there?"
"Not quite," the Gen admitted.
Eskalie breathed a sigh of relief.
"They'll know we don't live around here. I expect they'll want a pretty complete account of what we're doing here, to make sure we're not associated with the recent robberies."
Eskalie's mare threw up its head, startled by the shriek, only to be caught up short by Tallin's hand on the reins. The Gen curbed its own mount's jump, then gave Eskalie an admonitory look. "There's no reason to scare the horses," it scolded.
"You're worried about the horses, when we're about to be captured by Wild Gens?"
Eskalie thought about dying in an attrition cage, with swarms of Wild Gens tormenting her with their selyn-rich fields from the other side of the bars. Past turnover as she was, the vision was frighteningly real. She felt the growing emptiness inside of her, not serious yet, but she had only two weeks to live if she could not kill again. Perhaps less, considering how the Wild Gens treated their prisoners. Her tentacles emerged from their sheaths, and hit the cuffs of her shirt.
The emptiness disappeared, muffled under Gen nager, and Eskalie's panic diminished in spite of herself. "As long as you keep calm--and keep your tentacles sheathed--they won't suspect a thing. Other than that, stay quiet, follow my lead, and let me do the talking."
This didn't sound like a terribly practical plan to Eskalie, but before she could voice her objections, Tallin had dropped Star's reins and turned to hail the troop of Wild Gens. Some remnant of good sense prevented her from applying boots to Star's sides and racing for the hills. She would have lost the race: the Gens knew the valley, and although their horses weren't quite of her own mare's quality, they were much fresher.
The Gens slowed in response to Tallin's cry. The pack of troopers stayed back at a safe distance, as their leader rode forward to talk to Tallin. Eskalie could zlin the alert suspicion in the Gens' nagers, and her tentacles itched under the thin covering of cloth. She saw a pair of manacles hanging at the belt of one particularly brawny Gen, and couldn't prevent herself from shuddering.
If the Gens thought to look at her: at her slenderness despite physical maturity, her instinctive Sime fluidity of movement; if they could feel the yawning emptiness inside her and the way their own fields responded to hers, she was dead. She could never hope to overpower ten Wild Gens at once. If she was lucky, they would be in a hurry and shoot her. If not, those deadly manacles would be clamped around her arms, and the torment would begin.
The Gens' leader, however, was paying much more attention to Tallin than to her. It questioned the Killer Gen for a good five minutes in the gibbering proto-language spoken by the Wild Gens. Several times, it apparently asked for elaboration on some point, and the detective held her breath, hoping that Tallin wouldn't slip up and betray her by accident.
Or on purpose. What if the Killer Gen, now that it was surrounded by fellow Gens, should decide that it preferred freedom to its current life as a pervert's pampered pet? All it would take would be one remark to the Gens' leader, a remark she would not understand until it was too late, and it could stay free. Would the Householding training, remarkable as it was, be enough to hold such a strong-willed Gen as Tallin?
The Gen's nager zlinned of alert confidence as it talked with the troop leader. She zlinned it lying several times, but there was no hint of betrayal in its nager. The Wild Gens were listening closely to its words, and their suspicion was gradually fading. She hoped that this meant that it was spinning a believable, if not entirely accurate, tale to account for their presence.
Eskalie was just beginning to hope she would survive this encounter when Tallin asked the chief Wild Gen a question. It nodded, called an order to the rest of its pack, and started its horse trotting briskly down the road. Tallin's chestnut started after it, and Star followed automatically. Before Eskalie could stop the mare, the troop of Wild Gens closed in, surrounding her in the middle of their formation.
She would have panicked and betrayed herself right then, if Tallin's nager hadn't linked tightly with hers, surrounding her with warm fog. It controlled her so completely that she was unable to do more than stay on her horse and grin vacantly. The part of her which could still think raged at the betrayal, but was unable to act. All she could do was stare at the creature's back, as it engaged the Wild Gen leader in an animated conversation.
Gradually, the Killer Gen's overwhelming presence lightened, until she was able to zlin past the fog. It was only then that the detective realized that the Wild Gens suspected nothing. They remained alert as they traveled, scanning the sides of the road, but beyond a simple awareness of her presence, they ignored her.
Eskalie had never been surrounded by so many Gens, and without a single other Sime to fight her for them. She could understand better why the lower classes resorted to unlicensed raiding so frequently, despite the harsh penalties. Why, there's almost a year's supply of Choice Kills riding right beside me, free for the taking. It had been months since her one Choice Kill, and she couldn't help zlinning the Gens, picking the one she would choose for her kill, if that were possible.
The sunlight flashed on the rifle of the female Gen riding next to her, reminding her that any attempt to take a kill would result in swift, and fatal, consequences.
The Gen caught her glance at its rifle and smiled, patting it confidently. It made some remark in its gibbering language, obviously intended to reassure.
Eskalie smiled weakly in reply, and looked away before the Gen could carry the one-sided conversation even further. Still, she liked its nager, which had a lively bite.
That one, she decided. If I could choose a kill from them all, I'd take that one.
They traveled across the valley for nearly two hours, alternating a brisk trot with occasional sessions at a walk, to rest the horses. The farms became more prosperous as they came closer to the river, which at this point made a lazy loop towards the Tormin side of the valley. There are fewer raids this far in, the detective realized. Most of the casual, unlicensed raiders will take their kill from the fist group of Gens they find, and run back across the border.
Just as the sun neared its zenith, they came to the river. It was navigable at this point, and the Wild Gens had taken full advantage of the opportunity this allowed. There were a full half dozen barges on the water, laden with grain and trade goods, and more tied up at the docks on the other bank.
Beyond the docks was a Gen town, glowing to her Sime senses with the collective nager of its inhabitants. I never thought there could be so many Gens in one place, outside of the big government Genfarm near the Capitol, Eskalie mused. And every one of them is an unclaimed Choice Kill!
Any Raider band wishing to take advantage of the bounty would find the task difficult, however. There was a sturdy stone wall around the town, broken by small holes through which poked the ominously gleaming wide barrels of cannon. Occasional glints of reflection along the top of the wall, as the sun reflected off polished bayonets, made it clear that the Wild Gens maintained alert sentries in all directions.
The road ended on the riverbank, where several ropes stretched across the river served as guides to no less than three ferries. Their alert proprietors had already spotted the Gen troop approaching, and were racing to bring their craft over the river even as their prospective passengers were dismounting.
The winner was a mangy-looking, gap-toothed Gen, well past breeding age, which was assisted by two younger males. It collected a voucher from the leader of the Wild Gen troop, and then sized up Eskalie and Tallin, obviously deciding what to ask in the way of compensation for taking them across.
Eskalie had not anticipated having to pay for anything during this journey through the Gen-held lands. She had hoped never to get close enough to a Wild Gen to be seen, much less solicited as a customer. However, apparently Tallin was better prepared than she, for the Killer Gen engaged the ferry operator in a spirited bargaining session before passing it a few coins. Apparently, the coins were of the proper currency, because the ferry Gen accepted them with hardly a glance, then invited its customers to proceed with a wave.
The Gen troop's horses allowed themselves to be led onto the ferries without a fuss, obviously well used to the drill. Star and Tallin's chestnut were inclined to balk, but they were tired from the morning's exercise, and allowed themselves to be persuaded with a minimum of difficulty.
As the ferry-Gen and its helpers hauled on their ropes, the barge moved out across the water. Star stamped nervously, giving Eskalie an excuse to ignore the Wild Gens crowding so close to her without raising suspicion. Still, she was very glad when they reached the far bank. From the ferry dock, the road continued towards the mountains and Tormin. A well-worn side road led to the docks for the barges, and the Gen town beyond. After the cramped confines of the ferry, Eskalie could hardly wait to continue the journey--preferably without the company of the armed Gens.
The Gens unloaded their horses with brisk efficiency, and mounted once more. To Eskalie's surprise and relief, Tallin didn't follow their example. Instead, after a brief exchange with the troop leader, the two Gens parted amicably. The troop continued down the main road, while Tallin led its chestnut down the side road towards the town gates.
"Just where do you think you're going?" Eskalie hissed, as soon as they were out of earshot of the Gens. "Tormin is that way." One tentacle automatically emerged from it sheath to point, but was blocked by the shirt cuff. Instead, she was forced to point towards the mountains with a finger, like a Gen.
"So is that troop," Tallin pointed out calmly, "and the New Washington Army doesn't approve of border hopping any more than their Nivet Territory counterparts. I, for one, would much rather let them do their sweep and leave the area before we attempt it."
"If you're so worried that those Gens will discover what we're trying to do, why the bloody shen did you decide to ride halfway across the valley with them?"
Tallin blinked at Eskalie's unaccustomed use of an obscenity. "You were really worried, weren't you?" it said, more than a little astonished. "But then, you wouldn't have learned any English at the Sommerin Academy."
Eskalie shook her head. "No, I didn't."
"Well, the lieutenant warned me that there were both isolated Raiders and Gen road thieves active at present. So I asked him for an escort to Alvin's Mill, since that's what the prosperous farmers we appear to be would have done. I'm sorry if that worried you, but I could hardly have explained it to you in Simelan, right in front of them, could I?"
"I suppose not." Eskalie agreed. The Gen troop was now out of sight, but Tallin continued to lead the chestnut towards the open gate of the Gen settlement. "Just where do you think you're going?"
The Killer Gen looked at her with faint surprise. "It's time for lunch, and the inn here at Alvin's Mill has an excellent cook."
Eskalie stopped in the middle of the road. "We're trying to get through Gen Territory unobserved, and you want to stop for lunch in the middle of a town full of Wild Gens? And every one of them armed to the teeth?" Eskalie stared at the creature, amazed that even a Gen could be so stupid.
Tallin shrugged. "Well, that's the general idea, yes." It grinned, amused at her discomfiture. "Just remember to keep your tentacles sheathed, and don't augment. Show them what they expect to see in a Gen or a child, and nobody will guess you're a Sime."
"You've done this before, haven't you."
"Traveled through Gen Territory, distracting attention from the Simes you're with." And if Householders use their Gens that way regularly, Eskalie thought, more than a little resentful, that would certainly explain how they manage to get their tentacles on some of those rare trade goods. What a beautiful little scam: they don't even have to find a caravan to ambush, just send a Gen or two in to trade for them. No risk, low prices...no wonder they can afford to live so well.
Tallin shrugged. "The Nivet Territory government frowns on its citizens trading with its enemies."
Which is no answer at all, Eskalie mused, but then, any Gen which has lived among Simes for so many years would know how easy it is for a Sime to zlin a lie.
If the Gen town had zlinned like an elite Genfarm from across the river, being within it was like something out of a need-fulfillment fantasy. It was swarming with Gens of every age and description, from newly established to a few that zlinned old enough to die before they could be properly killed. And with the exception of Tallin, every single one of them was legally free for the taking.
Eskalie followed the Killer Gen in a daze, zlinning the bounty on display around her. Some of the Gens were timid, some bold, some radiated anger, while others were consumed with joy or satisfaction. There was even an intriguing note of pain from a female limping by on a bandaged foot. She let herself drift hyperconscious, savoring the infinite possibilities.
A bright fog bank interposed itself between her and the other Gens, and she found herself duoconscious again. She blinked, and met the Killer Gen's disapproving stare. Unaccountably, she found herself blushing at being caught drooling over the Wild Gens.
A large part of Tallin's attention stayed firmly on her as it threaded its way through the crowded streets, attenuating the effects of the impinging fields around her. The rest of the Gen's attention was dedicated to finding lunch, as quickly as possible. Despite the muffin she had eaten that morning, the detective found herself feeling a totally unexpected and unnatural appetite.
The inn was easy enough to find, as it was conveniently located on the intersection of the two main roads through the town. It was a sprawling building, with wings enclosing a courtyard, and a large stable taking up the rear. It was clean, freshly painted, and swarming with Gens, most of which carried a weapon of some sort.
Tallin flagged down a stableboy and passed the young scamp the chestnut's reins, along with some instructions and a coin. The tip must have been more than adequate, because the boy nodded enthusiastically. He grinned impertinently at Eskalie as he took Star's reins from her and led both horses to the stable. The detective grinned back, enjoying his boldness.
He's thin, she told herself optimistically. He's got a decent chance to go through changeover and become a real person.
She followed Tallin through the door into the inn's main room, and found herself overwhelmed by the swarms of Gens which were packed into the confined space. All of them were in a hurry, rushing this way and that as they chased screaming children or ate a quick meal. The inn's servants moved among them, carrying luggage or heavy plates piled high with enormous portions of food.
She moved closer to Tallin, using the Gen's stronger nager to block the worst of the chaos. The Killer Gen looked closely at her, then engaged in a spirited exchange with the innkeeper, a portly female Gen with an infectiously cheerful nager which made Eskalie's tentacles itch under their disguising layers of cloth. When the two Gens had finished their discussion, Tallin passed the innkeeper some coins, and the portly Gen led them down a short hall to a private room.
It was small, but it had a table set in front of a cheerful fire, and the thick log walls cut the ambient nager to a more bearable level. The detective sighed in relief, and Tallin nodded approval at the innkeeper. The Gen smiled, and bowed its way out of the room, leaving them alone.
"Our lunch will arrive in a few minutes," Tallin explained. "In the meantime, the facilities are just through that door down the hall, if you would care to use them?"
"I would indeed," Eskalie agreed, suddenly acutely conscious of the condition of her rag. Still, she was a little reluctant to brave the Gens outside on her own.
Tallin smiled in understanding, and accompanied her on the pilgrimage. It took its own turn in the outhouse, and they both returned to their private dining room feeling much more relaxed. They had barely seated themselves at the table when the door swung open to admit a young female Gen with a heavy tray of food.
The nager was stronger than it had been two months before, but there was no escaping its familiarity, or the potential for utter disaster which it represented. The detective had time only to shoot a horrified glance in Tallin's direction before the young Gen's field flared with utter astonishment.
"Eskie!" Helka stared at her former best friend as if seeing a ghost.
The heavy tray dipped dangerously, threatening to dump the soup on the rug. Eskalie jumped to her feet, augmenting slightly, and relieved the Gen of its burden before the sound of crashing crockery brought the innkeeper running. She set the tray on the table, but remained standing, ready to silence the Gen if it tried to cry out a warning.
"What are you doing here?" Helka asked, looking back and forth between Eskalie and Tallin. "Don't you know what the people here do to any Sime that they can catch?" As the Gen's initial surprise faded, a growing note of delicious apprehension colored its nager. Under the concealing sleeves of her shirt, the detective's laterals peeked from their sheathes to savor the tempting field.
"I do know," Eskalie confirmed grimly. At least the Gen had enough sense to know that it could never beat a Sime in a race for the door. She had no particular desire to harm it, but neither did she intend to die in the Wild Gens' attrition cages.
"We are just passing through," Tallin said calmly, helping itself to the soup. "Neither our presence nor our errand will result in any harm to you or anyone else on this side of the border. You have my word on that, unto Dar."
Helka looked at Tallin's untentacled arms and nodded acceptance of the oath, obviously trusting a fellow Gen's reassurance. The detective suppressed a stab of jealousy, mixed with grief. The old Helka would have looked to Eskalie for reassurance, not to a Householding pet.
Her childhood friend was gone forever, however, changed into this apprehensive young Gen. Like any feral animal, its knowledge of Simes made it twice as dangerous as a normal Wild Gen. However, it might be possible to use that same understanding to convince it that she was not a threat. Cautiously, the detective sat and reached for the soup, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible. She kept her attention on the young Gen, ready to pounce if the act failed to win the desired results.
Tallin appeared to have settled on a similar tactic, or perhaps it was simply displaying the typical greed all Gens displayed around food. As it assembled a sandwich from the cheese and fresh bread, it asked Helka, "So, how have you managed on this side of the border? Are you learning the language?"
Helka shrugged in resignation. "I've picked up enough to know what the customers want, most of the time. Jirra, the other kitchen maid, speaks a few words of Simelan, so I get on well enough. At least I've honest work, a roof over my head, and enough food. That's more than many in my situation can say. So that mouse necklace of yours really did bring me luck, Eskalie."
"You still have it?" the detective asked, curious despite herself. She hadn't given a thought to the "lucky charm" since she had presented it to Helka at the border two months before.
"Of course I have it. I wear it all the time." The young Gen pulled on a leather thong around its neck, bringing a green stone into view. A few notches crudely carved into the surface years ago by the Morlin stableman suggested tail and whiskers. Helka's nager took on a homesick tinge as the newly work-roughened hands clutched the amulet protectively. "It reminds me of happier times," the Gen explained.
"Indeed," Tallin agreed, taking another sip of its soup. The bowel was already half emptied. "This really is an excellent soup. Did you help to prepare it?"
Helka nodded shyly, but it was obvious that the Gen was proud of its newly acquired culinary skill. It was one more jarring reminder to Eskalie of the changes her former friend had undergone, that went much farther than just selyn production and lack of tentacles. The old Helka, daughter of one of Nivet Territory's most prominent families, would have scoffed at the suggestion that she undertake the duties of a scullery maid.
The Gen's pride faded, to be replaced once more by the unfulfilled longing of homesickness. "Eskalie, have you any news of my family? How is my mother doing, and my sisters?"
Eskalie shrugged, unwilling to admit that she no longer had contact with well-bred families, unless they chose to hire her services. Fortunately, Gretta Morlin's stream of dinner conversation had provided a few tidbits, as had Jan's overview of recent financial news.
"Your sister decided to sell last year's foals, instead of expanding the horse farm as she planned. Your cousin's child was a boy, and your younger sister went through changeover about a month ago."
Helka smiled with a bittersweet happiness. "I'm glad Yolinda made it. She's a good kid. And Lorra's baby--do you know what she named him?"
The detective shook her head. "I'm sorry, I don't."
"Well, I know he was born safely, and that's something." A pleading note resonated through the young Gen's nager. "When you see them again... Please, tell them that I love them, and that I'll never forget them."
"I will, if I have an appropriate opportunity," Eskalie promised. Privately, she suspected that the proud Arslan clan might be just as glad to forget the unfortunate existence of an established daughter. If so, she had no intention of offering offense by reminding them. She finished her small serving of soup, and began to turn her attention to escaping the trap which the inn had become.
She was debating the merits of leaving Helka bound and gagged in the room, and hoping that it would take a while before the Gen was discovered, when Tallin finished its own huge meal, and began to stack the dishes neatly back on the tray.
"I believe we're both finished," the Killer Gen said, smiling at Helka as it added a few coins as a tip. "Would you please ask the stable hands to bring our horses around?"
"Of course," Helka agreed, picking up the tray and heading for the door. "Have a safe journey."
Eskalie had stiffened as she heard Tallin's request, but the Gen's nager reached out as it had done earlier, controlling her. She could only watch helplessly as Helka left, free to raise the town against her.
As the door latch clicked shut, the Gen's control lightened, and the detective was free to voice her objections. "Shen, Tallin! You should have let me take care of the situation. The whole townfull of Wild Gens will be hunting us in a few minutes."
The Killer Gen shook its head, looking after Helka thoughtfully. "I don't think she'll tell anyone. She's still identifying with her family."
Eskalie wished she shared the creature's confidence--or failing that, its immunity to the horrors of attrition.
Tallin met her gaze and shrugged. "We'll find out in a few minutes, I suppose."
It was a very tense few minutes for the detective, who expected armed Gens to burst through the door at any time. She paced restlessly, tentacles twitching under the confining cloth. Every other circuit, she paused to zlin the corridor, and then reinspected the small window which formed the only possible emergency exit.
When the innkeeper finally arrived, Eskalie nearly jumped out the window before she realized that the Gen was alone, unworried, and most importantly, unarmed. It looked at her in a puzzled fashion, while she tried to look as innocent as possible. Tallin offered a short phrase of explanation, which seemed to satisfy it, and then the Killer Gen accompanied it out the door. The detective followed, nearly trampling its heels in her haste to leave before Helka could think better of the situation.
The horses were waiting, rested and ready to continue. Eskalie checked Star's girth and mounted before Tallin had finished taking leave of the Gen innkeeper, which seemed inclined to linger and chat. The black mare was dancing with her restlessness before the Gens finally finished gossiping and Tallin climbed aboard the chestnut.
Once mounted, though, the Killer Gen appeared to remember its own haste to return to Tormin. It threaded its way back to the gate, then nudged the chestnut into a brisk trot as they reached the road. They continued to make good time across the rest of the valley. Eskalie constantly zlinned ahead for trouble, but whatever illegal raiders and bandits might have been lurking in the bushes had apparently been scared off by the Gen troop which had proceeded them.
The road curved just before the steep foothills which constituted the border. After her earlier speculations, it came as no surprise to the detective when Tallin turned the cantering chestnut neatly and jumped a low spot in a poorly tended pasture fence. Eskalie followed, urging Star over the obstacle.
They saw three elderly cows as they passed through the meadow, but no Gens. There was a tumbledown gate on the other side, rusted and covered with the summer's growth of morning glories. Tallin didn't bother to try the latch, but sent the chestnut over it with a bound. The detective grinned in delight as the black mare took the jump in turn. This must be how a bird feels when it flies. Not even augmenting gave such a sense of freedom, for it always came with the knowledge that irreplaceable selyn reserves were being consumed.
Not long afterwards, the Killer Gen slowed its mount to a walk, as they started to climb into the hills. The trail was as poor as its counterpart on the other side of the valley, and the horses were tiring, but they made steady progress as they wound towards the ridge which formed the official border.
They paused at the summit to let the horses breathe, and to change back into their regular clothing. Eskalie rid herself of the troublesome Gen shirt with undisguised relief, then took the opportunity to exercise her newly freed tentacles by zlinning the path ahead. The trail down the other side of the ridge, into Sime Territory, looked even worse than the ascent: steep and slippery as it repeatedly crossed a small stream. The high banks on either side would shield their fields from casual zlinning, but that was about all that could be said for the route. Eskalie viewed the pebbles in the streambed, just the right size to wedge in a hoof and cause lameness, and shook her head.
"Why don't you stay here and watch the horses," she said, loosening Star's girth, "and I'll scout around a bit and see if there's an easier way down."
Tallin was obviously unhappy at the delay, but the Gen knew as well as Eskalie that the horses were reaching their limit. It, too, was tiring after the two days of hard riding. It nodded tiredly and took Star's reins, then returned to its own mount, walking unsteadily. With fingers stiffened from holding the reins, it began loosening the chestnut's girth.
Eskalie started down the ridge, walking a bit awkwardly herself. There appeared to be a longer slope in that direction. If it was passable all the way to the valley floor, they could make their way easily to the Tormin-Sommerin road, and be in Tormin shortly thereafter. The route would be a bit more exposed, but there had been no Freeband Raiders spotted around Tormin for months. The Licensed Raiders preferred to operate in high summer, when the Wild Gens were exposed and vulnerable as they worked their fields. Even her Uncle Rabin's Border Patrol units would be concerning themselves with policing the fairgoers on the main roads. And if she did run into them--well, they knew she was their General's niece.
No, Eskalie thought, as she skirted a think clump of bushes, the worst we're likely to encounter at this time of year is some poor, heartbroken parent trying to get a new Gen to the border.
When Eskalie smelled smoke, then, she naturally assumed that a brush fire had started among the fallen leaves. Concerned, she pushed through the last of the concealing leaves, made her way around a pile of rocks, and looked down into the next valley, searching for the source of the fire.
She ducked back behind the insulating rockpile as soon as she zlinned the swarm of Simes in the valley below. She held her breath for a long moment, hoping that no particularly far-zlinning individual had been paying attention at the wrong moment. When no alarm was raised, she lay down and cautiously wriggled forward until she could peek through a gap between two rocks, while her nager remained almost completely concealed.
The valley was a small fold in the hills, with steep sides almost clear of trees which offered both protective insulation and a clear view of anyone approaching. At least fifteen Simes were camped in the hidden spot: rough characters in patched clothes, but using new tents and equipment, and with new whips wrapped around their waists. The distance made it harder to judge the quality of the horses in the temporary corral beyond the camp, but they seemed to be in good condition, and of better breeding than their owners.
The well equipped camp, weapons, and fast horses implied an Licensed Raider band. However, that didn't make sense. Not only was it the wrong time of year to hunt Gens, but there was no way to get a cage wagon down the trail to Gen Territory and back.
As Eskalie puzzled over the apparent contradiction, five more of the band brought a herd of at least forty pack mules back from pasturage at the end of the valley, and turned them into the corral. With an effort which showed them to be relatively inexperienced at handling mules, they began catching the beasts, checking their hooves, and brushing the worst of the mud off of them. While they were thus occupied, some of the others began to pull pack saddles out of a storage tent and tie large sacks to the frames.
Eskalie's tentacles lashed angrily around her clenched fists as she finally realized what they intended, and why Councilman Whilly had gone to such trouble and expense to procure Califf's wagonload of goods. She also had a very clear idea of what was likely to happen if the politician was allowed to succeed.
Muttering a series of imprecations--laughably mild by Sesfin's standards, but satisfying enough for an amateur like herself--she made her way carefully back from the edge of the ridge. When she was fully behind the rockpile, and could no longer zlin a hint of the fields in the valley below, she stood up and jogged back towards the horses.
Tallin was inspecting one of the chestnut's front hooves for stones or other injury. The Gen released the hoof as she approached, patting the beast on the shoulder. "Did you find an easier way down?" it asked.
Eskalie went immediately to Star's side and began to retighten the girth. "No, but I found something else I shouldn't have. Get ready; we can't spare the horses any more. I'll explain later."
To its credit, the Gen didn't waste time asking questions, but hastened to obey. The brief rest had done the horses good, and they stepped out willingly enough.
For the first hour, the trail was too steep to go faster than a walk, but when they reached the bottom, Eskalie urged Star to a trot. The underbrush was less dense here, so Tallin was able to bring the chestnut alongside Star.
"What did you find back there?" it asked. "Freeband Raiders?"
"Worse," the detective replied. She outlined her findings, zlinning with some trepidation the Killer Gen's growing fury.
When they reached the road, Eskalie barely paused long enough to zlin for witnesses before jumping Star over the drainage ditch. The mare had caught its owner's urgency, and sprang into a heavy canter on the better surface.
The traffic increased on the outskirts of Tormin, and Eskalie pulled the mare to a walk, unwilling to founder her prized possession. By the time they had wound their way through the streets to Danvan's, both horses had stopped panting.
The stable owner's eyes widened as he saw them, taking in the change in the Gen's mount, and the condition of both animals. "What happened?" he asked, his nager reflecting indignation that such fine animals should be ridden to exhaustion.
"There's no time to explain," the detective said, handing him her reins and motioning for Tallin to do the same. "Do your best for them; they've certainly earned it. Could I borrow your stableboy to deliver a few messages for me? It's rather urgent." She reached into her money pouch and pulled out a coin.
Danvan's eyes widened as he zlinned its value. "Of course, Tuib. I'll get the boy right away." He quickly hitched the two horses and ran off to find his assistant.
Eskalie retrieved her notepad from her saddlebags and wrote two long notes and one short one. She folded one of the long notes inside the short one, and sealed both missives. By the time the stableboy returned, the worst of his usual grime hastily washed off in the horse trough, the detective was ready.
"This note is for my uncle, General Morlin, at the Border Patrol camp just outside town. You are to give it to him personally, not to an aide."
The boy nodded, listening intently.
"After you've seen the General, take the saddle bags and this note to my partners at Kirlin Security."
"Yes, Tuib! I'll do it right away." The thin chest inflated with pride at the importance of the errand. "You can depend on me."
"I'm sure I can." Eskalie smiled at the youngster's excitement, and slipped him a coin as well. He does know horses, she concluded, as the lad unerringly picked the fastest of his master's ill-bred nags for his journey.
With the horses in good tentacles, and her preparations made to the best of her abilities, Eskalie motioned for Tallin to follow her and made her way to the Silver Cup, in search of the junior Whilly and his uncle the Gendealer. The Killer Gen balked at first, making its preference for visiting the jail clear, but followed obediently once she murmured, "You'll get to Sectuib Califf much faster if we can persuade Quildon Whilly to drop his charge of assault, first."
Unlike its two competitors, the Silver Cup was set slightly off the main road, just far enough to mute the worst of the noise and smells. Although it was conveniently close to the market, its prices ensured that its patrons would not be troubled by the undisciplined fields of the common throng. Its cellars boasted an impressive array of quality wines and liquors, and its killrooms were rumored to be of the best: well insulated and equipped for any taste. There was even a small restaurant to cater to patrons who were post, or traveling with children.
Eskalie had been in the place only once, when her uncle had insisted on having her join a small but exclusive group of his friends to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his changeover. The innkeeper recognized her, however. While he undoubtedly was aware of her less-than-exalted profession, her family name, fine clothing, and the nager of the "pet Gen" following her with such apparent tameness, combined to convince him that she was worthy of his hostelry.
"It is good to see you again, Tuib Morlin," he welcomed her, his nager both discreet and deferential. "How may I be of assistance?"
Eskalie acknowledged the greeting with a nod. "I believe Duffy Naifels is staying here, along with a nephew, Quildon Whilly. Are they in, by any chance?"
The innkeeper nodded cautiously. "I believe Tuib Naifels is having a private evening with his nephew," he said, weighing the necessity of protecting his current guest's privacy with his desire not to offend a much wealthier potential one. "Perhaps you could return tomorrow morning?"
"I believe he will wish to interrupt his evening to see me," the detective maintained. Stepping to the counter, she appropriated a page of the hotel's elegant letterhead stationery and a pen, and inscribed a single word on the page. She sprinkled sand to dry it quickly, then handed it to the innkeeper, along with a coin. "Would you please deliver this to Tuib Naifels with my compliments, and ask him if he would be willing to give me a few moments of his time?"
"It would be my pleasure, Tuib." Both note and coin disappeared with commendable haste. "If you would care to take a seat in our lounge, I will return with his answer momentarily." With a final bow, the man disappeared down the corridor which led to the guest rooms.
Eskalie had no wish to sit down, after three days in the saddle. However, the lounge had a very pleasant view of a small rose garden which graced the inn's side yard. It would be spectacular in the spring, the detective was sure, but there were a few late roses still gracing the carefully tended bushes.
The innkeeper returned with commendable speed. "Tuib Naifels will see you now. Would you care to place your Gen in our holding room?"
"That won't be necessary," Eskalie said, as the Killer Gen asserted its opinion of the suggestion by assuming its usual position at her elbow. "It's well trained, and won't cause any trouble."
Although this statement was based more on hope than confidence, the innkeeper shrugged and escorted them to the suite Duffy Naifels had obtained for the duration of the Fall Market. The Genfarmer was pacing the suite's main room, his nager radiating agitation, while a confused Quildon sat in one of the comfortable chairs. On the sideboard was a decanter of red wine and an artistically arranged row of glasses.
Naifels paused in his pacing, momentarily diverted as he zlinned Tallin. "Nice Gen," he said, with an expert's eye for good stock. "Healthy, and an interesting bite to the nager. It would make a good breeder, even if it is a bit old. I don't suppose you'd consider selling?"
"No, I wouldn't," Eskalie replied.
"Then," and in a flash of augmentation the Gendealer was in front of her, shaking the now-crumpled note in her face, "perhaps you could tell me the meaning of this?"
Eskalie retrieved the battered paper and smoothed it. She looked at the one word, Wheat, which she had inscribed upon it in the neat script drilled into her by the Sommerin Academy's dedicated staff of teachers. Dropping the note onto a convenient small table, she smiled at the apprehensive Gendealer.
"I would think that the meaning would be obvious," she said, shrugging gracefully. "While I'm well aware that it's impossible to contain the occasional...unofficial visit...across the border, I'm afraid I must draw the line at activities on a scale likely to bring retaliation from the Wild Gens. Unlike you, I live here in Tormin, and I'm not willing to see my community destroyed to enhance your bank balance, much as it could use the assistance."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Naifels bluffed. Fear and anger tinted his nager despite his best efforts to hide them, and Eskalie's lip curled at this demonstration of lower-class control.
"Don't you?" she asked, letting him zlin her own skepticism of his denial. "Let me refresh your memory for a moment, then." With counterfeit ease, she strolled over to the sideboard and poured herself a glass of wine. She gave the glass a practiced swirl and sniffed, then took a small sip. Hmm, lots of raspberry and a hint of cherry as well, full malolactic in the barrel to get that butter-vanilla note, just enough acid to carry off the alcohol, and aged to perfection in the bottle for at least ten years.
"I see the Silver Cup's wine cellar deserves its sterling reputation," she remarked, taking a larger portion into her mouth.
Naifels' nager nearly exploded with impatience, and the detective raised a pained eyebrow before swallowing delicately and setting the glass regretfully aside. "I'm talking about the plan you and your fellow investors in the Businessmen's Agricultural Import Alliance formed to market that new, rust-resistant strain of wheat the Wild Gens are growing, of course."
Duffy Naifels' reaction was everything she could have hoped for: he froze, as paralyzed with terror as any Gen in the killroom. Tallin flared astonishment, and understanding, while Quildon remained confused. It figures. He had to remain an innocent dupe, or he couldn't have carried out his part of the plan. Besides, who'd trust an pompous dandy like that with critical, and incriminating, information?
Eskalie smiled in a predatory fashion, enjoying the effects of the ambient she had created on her newly awakened need, and picked up her wineglass for another sip. "Night raiding is risky, of course. Expensive, too, particularly in the spring and fall, but in times like these, labor is relatively cheap. Besides, you could hardly go when the crop was in the ground, could you? You certainly stood to gain fantastic profits, if you became the only source for productive seed wheat in the Territory. You could set your own price."
The Gendealer's hands clenched, tentacles wrapped around them in a crushing grip.
"You made your first attempt in the spring of last year," Eskalie continued. "You miscalculated the timing, though, and the Wild Gens had already planted. Your hirelings were able to get a respectable catch of Gens, but that was all. You had better luck that fall, only to lose most of your crop to the drought. You weren't able to get a loan from my parents' bank, or from your other investors, but you did persuade your brother-in-law to provide the money for one more attempt. You didn't care about the Border Patrollers and innocent civilians who would be murdered when the Wild Gens raided in return."
"Border trash, with no family at all." Quildon protested, dismissing the victims with a wave of two tentacles.
Eskalie's eyes narrowed dangerously. "May I remind you that my uncle and I also live in Tormin? Or do you consider the Morlin family as 'trash'?"
The dandy prudently declined to answer.
She turned back to the Gendealer. "I object to having my life endangered by illegal and irresponsible raiding."
"You can't prove anything," Naifels retorted.
The detective set down her wineglass. "Perhaps I can't, but then again, perhaps I can. Proof is such a vague concept, after all, don't you agree? It's easy enough to buy, if you can't get it for free. And if you have more greed than sense."
The Gendealer's nager chilled with hostility. "You had better have a very good story before you make accusations like that."
Eskalie made a gesture of polite acceptance with three tentacles. "How is this for a story, then? When you discovered that Dar had joined with several other...Householdings...to import, grow, and distribute the new grain, you found your profits threatened. The perverts have trained Gens to front for them, after all, so they can trade for their seed wheat, and get it for a fraction of your cost. Furthermore, they have a strong incentive to make sure that farmers can easily afford the seed, since their enclaves tend to get raided when times are hard and Gens in short supply."
Eskalie zlinned Tallin's strong agreement with her, and knew she'd guessed correctly.
"You and your brother-in-law couldn't afford to have your scheme fail--you've both borrowed far too much to fund the venture. So, you found a clerk at my parents' bank who was trying desperately to buy her father a Choice Kill. You offered to solve her little difficulty if she'd forge documentation of a loan from Councilman Whilly to Dar's late Sectuib. Jan accepted, and you took the forged papers to Judge Lighs and obtained an order allowing you to confiscate one wagonload of goods from the new Sectuib."
Naifels' apprehension would have made it clear to the least sensitive Sime that Eskalie was right.
"You found out that Dar would be bringing their seed wheat across the border during the Fall Fair, when no one was likely to pay attention to one more wagon full of farm goods," she continued. "You knew Sectuib Califf would contest your claim, and you didn't want every passing citizen to zlin you lying about it. So, you had your brother-in-law send the papers to Quildon, with a written request that he serve it. It never occurred to him that his own father would ask him to act as a common thief."
Quildon's nager twisted with disillusionment and humiliation as he absorbed how he had been used by his family. The detective nodded to herself; she had suspected that the young man held his honor and reputation dear.
Naifels recoiled at the contempt which was clear to zlin in every nager in the room, even that of the lone Gen. "It wasn't like that at all," he protested weakly, wringing his tentacles in distress. "They were only perverts. With all their Prime Kills, which they horde like a miser...what right had they to come in and destroy our business? I'm sure an intelligent youngster like you can understand that."
"'It's just as dishonorable to steal from a lorsh as from an upstanding citizen,' as my father says." Eskalie had no sympathy for such justifications, and the Gendealer flushed with anger as he realized his attempt to win her over had failed.
"I'm sure you expected Sectuib Califf to surrender his grain rather than contest your forged claim," the detective continued. "After all, he would assume that he could replace it easily, in plenty of time for planting next spring. He had no way of knowing that you were staging a raid of your own, which would rouse the Wild Gens and effectively close the border until the snows made travel impossible."
She paused to take another sip of the excellent red. "It was a good plan, and it might have worked if Quildon's mare hadn't thrown a shoe, and if he hadn't lost a day's travel because of it. By the time he found Califf, most of the seed wheat had already been distributed to the other Householding groups, and replaced with a wagonload of trade goods."
"What?" The Gendealer turned to his nephew. "Why didn't you tell me you were too late to get the wheat?"
"I was told to secure a lien against a wagonload of goods and its contents, to settle a bad debt," Quildon said stiffly. "How was I to know you wanted grain and not ax heads and cloth?"
"We'll never to able to stop the perverts from competing with us now," Naifels complained. "We'll lose most of our profit, if we have to match the prices they will set. After all, they don't have to buy extra kills for their field hands when there's work to be done under augmentation." He started to pace again, his tentacles lashing restlessly.
Eskalie was unable to muster any sympathy. "Quildon arrived too late to protect your monopoly. Your scheme might still have remained undiscovered, though, if the goods he was trying to confiscate hadn't included a strongbox with items belonging to Sectuib Califf's late mother. The pervert was understandably reluctant to surrender them, and the resulting altercation was severe enough to require my intervention, in my capacity as a peacekeeper for the Fair."
"You were brawling at the Fair?" Naifels asked his nephew.
"The pervert started it," Quildon grumbled.
"Quildon insisted that I enforce his forged lien and arrest Califf for assault. However, there were enough oddities to the case to arouse my suspicions, and I arranged for an official investigation to take place before the goods were awarded to their rightful owner. Dar was unhappy about the assault charge, and subsequently hired me to investigate the matter personally." Eskalie saw no reason to explain that it was the Gen at her side which had done the actual hiring.
"I am no longer a deputy peacekeeper," she continued. "If Quildon will forgo his actions against Sectuib Califf and his goods, that will fulfill the limits of my obligation. I am content to let you sell what seed wheat you managed to grow this past summer in peace. With the blight spreading so rapidly, it will take all the seed you and the perverts both can raise to keep the Pens and Genfarms supplied. However, the illegal raids must stop, and--" her nager reinforced her grim determination--"if I ever learn that you, or your brother-in-law either, have attempted to trade upon the reputation of Morlin Bank to further your schemes, I will personally see to it that your outstanding loans are called in, leaving you without a single coin towards your Pen taxes. I will not have my family's reputation tainted by thieves and forgers."
"It's unfortunate that you feel that way," Naifels said. Two steps brought him to the fireplace, within reach of the iron poker in its stand. "I would have been willing to offer you a share of the profits for your cooperation, but now I can't afford to let you carry your tale out of this room," he said, hoisting the implement. "Fortunately, there is more than one way to silence inconvenient nuisances. Quildon, block the door."
Quildon might be upset and disillusioned at finding out how he had been used, but enough of his father's flexible ethics had bred true for him to zlin where his kill hid. He obediently stood and sauntered over to the door, where he slouched, trying to look dangerous. The effect would have been more realistic if he'd been able to resist pausing halfway to rearrange the hang of his vest. Eskalie did her best not to let her amusement show in her nager.
"It's too late for that, I'm afraid," the detective said, not moving from her place by the sideboard. "I sent a note to my uncle before dropping by here. There will be a troop of the Border Patrol waiting when your raiders leave their valley. Furthermore, I took the precaution of placing a letter outlining my conclusions with a reliable third party. If I fail to personally retrieve it within six hours, it will be delivered to my parents. I don't think you'd care for the scrutiny your affairs would get under those circumstances."
Naifels' fury and desperation exploded at this revelation, and for a brief moment, he was willing to risk the consequences if he could hurt Eskalie physically as she had destroyed him financially. He growled and crouched, ready to charge, brandishing the poker.
Tallin had come to full alert when Naifels had first touched the poker. When it saw him preparing to attack, the Killer Gen placed itself between the Gendealer and his intended victim with two carefully measured strides, its nager condensed into a flame of disciplined, deadly purpose. Naifels blinked at the unexpected sight, his murderous intent momentarily diverted by the preposterousness of a Gen trying to act as bodyguard to a Sime.
Quildon, however, lacked his uncle's appreciation for the absurd. Ignoring Tallin, he charged for Eskalie under low augmentation, tentacles spread wide as he reached for her throat. There was a blur of movement which Eskalie couldn't quite catch, and when the ambient settled, Tallin had the young dandy bent over, his right arm twisted high behind his back. One of the Gen's large hands held Quildon's wrist; the other gripped his forearm, fingers and thumb resting lightly on the sheathed laterals. Any attempt to struggle would result in fatal damage to the delicate organs.
All three Simes froze.
"I would recommend that you put that poker down--very slowly," Eskalie told Naifels softly, hoping to defuse the situation before Tallin got excited and squeezed. "The Gen belongs to Sectuib Califf, and belonged to his mother before that. Make a move it considers a threat, and it'll slaughter your nephew with less remorse than you give your monthly kill."
"True enough," Tallin admitted, its deadly focus never wavering. Quildon whimpered.
The Gendealer placed his weapon carefully back in its stand, then held up his empty hands, tentacles retracted in a show of surrender. "I'm not going to throw my life away, or my nephew's, either," he told Eskalie. "You're either the bravest person I've ever met, or the greatest fool, traveling with a Killer Gen. How'd you get the loan of it, anyway?"
The detective wasn't quite sure herself, so she just shrugged and replied, "They seemed to think it might be useful." She looked thoughtfully at Quildon and his captor, counterfeiting a confidence she didn't feel, then nerved herself to test her authority over the deadly Gen.
"You can let go of him now, I think."
Eskalie held her breath as the Gen looked at her, considering. Then it released Quildon, pushing the dandy so he stumbled forward awkwardly, off balance. Tallin continued to watch its victim, poised and ready to respond if necessary.
Quildon, however, was in no condition to cause further trouble. Nager ringing with shock, he staggered back to his chair, groping weakly for his wineglass with all eight handling tentacles. He lifted it to his lips, almost spilling the deep red liquid on his vest, and profaned the excellence of the vintage by taking a large gulp, and then another. When the glass was empty, he let it drop, scattering the last drops on the expensive carpet, and inspected his laterals, as if unable to believe that they were still intact.
"Uncle Duffy, this is really too much," he complained. "You might have warned me about Killer Gens before involving me in your plans."
Eskalie had no personal affection for Quildon, but she could empathize with his feelings. She had experienced them herself when she discovered that Tallin was far from the tame Gen her uncle had claimed.
Tallin remained alert, but most of the deadly threat had once more disappeared from the foggy nager. A growing impatience had replaced it, and Eskalie knew the Gen wouldn't tolerate further delay.
"I have spent a hard three days on the road, and I would like to conclude this case before I rest," she said. "Quildon, your presence is required at the jail, to formally drop your charge against Sectuib Califf. Bring your copy of the wagon's inventory, as well."
With an uneasy glance at Tallin, the dandy went to his room to fetch his cape and the required document. Eskalie took advantage of the delay to tell Naifels quietly, "I expect you had the sense to make sure that your illegal raiders can't be traced back to you when the Border Patrol catches them. If you budget wisely, fair profits on the grain you already have will rebuild your fortune in a few years, even with competition from the perverts. You've got a second chance, which is more than most in your position could hope for. Don't throw it away by doing something stupid."
The Gendealer's lip curled in a snarl, but he was in no position to reject the unwanted advice. Instead, he threw himself into a chair by the fire and sulked, pretending not to zlin when Quildon returned with his cape, ready to depart.
The walk to the jail was uneventful, except for Quildon's attempts to keep Eskalie between him and the Killer Gen. The detective didn't bother to inform the dandy that he had nothing to fear, from Tallin, herself, or any passing Sime, as long as his word was required to free the Gen's owner.
Sheriff Russ was working late, taking care of the paperwork generated by the Fair. He looked up as the group entered his office. "Eskalie, what are you doing back here? And weren't you going to return that Gen to Householding Dar?" He cast a puzzled glance at Tallin.
"I did, but they asked me to return it to Califf. They also hired me to look into the matter of this disputed wagonload of goods personally, so they wouldn't have to wait for the official investigation. Quildon, I believe you have something to tell the sheriff?"
The young dandy squared his shoulders. "It appears I was mistaken," he said reluctantly. "The wagonload of goods belongs to Sectuib Califf."
"And?" Eskalie prompted.
Quildon gritted his teeth, but managed to get out, "And under the circumstances, I feel it is only honorable to drop the assault charge as well."
Russ looked at them both curiously, but didn't question them further. Indeed, he seemed relieved at having such an easy end to a potentially nasty case. "If that's the way you want it," he said. He levered himself to his feet and stepped out of the office. His voice echoed back down the hall as he yelled through the metal-reinforced grill that led back to the cell block. "Norra! Fetch the pervert, he's to go free."
Returning to his office, and his comfortable chair, the sheriff admitted, "I'll be just as glad to see him gone. He's been turning the place upside down, trying to spread his perversion. If our other...guests...had been able to reach him, they'd have murdered him on the spot." He paused, surprised, to zlin Tallin's alarmed reaction to this admission. "Then last night, one of those thieving kids he was locked up with went into changeover. Well, you can't get a changeover assistant to come to the jail, and those untrained street kids don't usually survive anyway. So when the pervert said he'd take care of the kid, I didn't see any harm in it. We got a Gen from the Pen, just in case, and left them alone."
A mixture of outrage and disgust permeated Russ's nager. "This afternoon, the pervert tells Norra that the kid's survived. She goes to pick up the body, and discovers that there isn't one. He's managed to convince the kid that she wants to be a pervert, too. And he's stripped her Gen so low that it's useless."
From the strength of his upset, it appeared that Russ had hoped that the pickpocket would die in changeover, leaving him with an extra Gen to kill or sell.
When Norra finally appeared, she was accompanied not only by Califf, but by both pickpockets. The new Sime was dragging a sorry Gen along by a short chain. It was still wearing the white yawal which should have become its shroud. Although its latest drugging had worn off, it was carrying so little selyn that its alarm at the strange surroundings could barely be zlinned.
Despite Tallin's apprehensions, Califf zlinned in the best of health, if one discounted his nager's usual artificial taint. At least this time, he'd had the sense to zlin like an almost-Sime. He barely had time to nod polite greeting to Eskalie before an overwhelming wave of relief from the Killer Gen sent every Sime in the room groping for support, weak-kneed.
Russ zlinned the Gen curiously, but before he could remark on the strange phenomenon, Tallin took two long steps and fell into position at Califf's side. Its nager assumed a calm, disciplined pulsing which blended with the pervert's, allowing him to control the room's ambient with very little effort. It was an awesome display of Dar's Gen training techniques.
The detective felt strangely abandoned without the Killer Gen at her side, much as its presence had worried her during the past few days. She could understand why well-trained pet Gens were in such demand, and why some people kept them for months before killing them. She had never heard of a pet Gen which had been taught all of Tallin's tricks, however. If the perverts ever overcome their silly sentimentality and sell their extra Gens, they'd put every Gen trainer in the Territory out of business.
After pausing to zlin Tallin curiously, Norra nodded towards the two young street criminals. "The pervert says he'll pay their fines, if we let 'em go join his House."
Russ spat on the floor to show his disgust. "They want to be perverts, then good riddance to 'em." He glared at Califf. "But I gotta see your money before they go anywhere."
The young pervert was obviously used to the reaction his lifestyle evoked among respectable citizens. Instead of responding to the insult, he said, "Certainly," and held out his hand for the purse Tallin offered. "I believe their fines were thirty apiece?"
"Thirty-five," lied Russ, his nager flaring greed as he zlinned the well-filled purse. His glare dared Califf to make an issue of it.
The pervert raised a skeptical eyebrow, but reached into the purse for the requested coins and laid them on the desk. However, when Russ started to reach for them, Califf covered the coins with a firm hand. "The release forms first."
The sheriff grumbled, but made out the requested papers and shoved them across the desk. "There, are you satisfied now?" He raked in his fee, and made a show of counting it as the pervert scanned the papers.
"These will do," Califf confirmed, folding the papers and putting them carefully in his shirt pocket. "If I could trouble you for my horses, wagon, and goods, I will be on my way."
"And good riddance," Russ muttered, as the coins disappeared. "Norra, get the pervert's horses hitched to his wagon and bring it around." He glared. "I'll have a copy of the inventory sent down."
At Eskalie's sharp glance, Quildon cleared his throat. "That won't be necessary. I happen to have my copy with me." He reluctantly fished the paper from his cape pocket and held it out gingerly, as if afraid that Califf's touch would turn him into a pervert, too.
Califf accepted the document with a nod of thanks, scanning it quickly before putting it with the release papers.
Russ's nager soured as he realized that his total profit on the venture was to be limited to his overcharge on the pickpockets' fines.
Califf, however, appeared to be in remarkably good spirits, even for a man just freed from prison. Nodding a polite farewell to the sheriff, he herded his new recruits and the Gens out of the office. Eskalie followed, in no mood to face her former boss's recriminations.
"The fines are a matter of public record," the detective remarked as they made their way across the paved courtyard. "Why did you let Russ cheat you?"
Califf grinned. "It kept him too busy to zlin past his own laterals. If I'd objected, he might have noticed this."
The fields shifted weirdly, and suddenly Eskalie's attention was caught by a faint pulse of selyn production from the male pickpocket. "You got a Choice Kill from Sheriff Russ for only thirty-five?" Even the Pen-raised nonentity Califf had stripped was worth three times that, or would be when it recovered from the treatment. The detective burst out laughing. "Oh, I can't wait to zlin his nager when he finds out!"
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather be as far away as possible at that time. Still, it's been a profitable three days, despite the inconvenience."
All three Simes flinched as Tallin's nager exploded in outrage. "Inconvenience!" it bellowed. "You could easily have ended up dead. The sheriff might have proved willing to overlook his promise and let the other prisoners murder you, or Quildon Whilly might have bribed the guards to quietly make you disappear. You could have ended up dead from entran complications, or Reloc fever, or any of a dozen other diseases. I spent the past three days expecting to find you dead or nearly so before I could get you out of here, and now you're calling it an 'inconvenience'?"
Eskalie had edged away as the tirade continued, unwilling to trust the Killer Gen's selectivity if it decided to go on a rampage. However, Califf merely grinned and put his arm around the deadly creature, giving it a comforting squeeze with hand and tentacles.
"I was worried too, Father, and things might not have worked out so well if I'd had to stay in there another day or two. Still, Dar has come out ahead for the mix-up, and I can't help but be happy about that."
The deadly nager softened as Tallin's face twisted in an unwilling smile. "Son, you'll be the death of me yet."
"Probably," the pervert admitted.
Somehow, Eskalie didn't think that the exchange was intended in the usual sense. As Tallin returned Califf's hug, truly relaxing for the first time since Quildon had attempted to serve the forged lien, the detective was struck by how well the pervert managed its deadly parent.
And if the pervert can live with a Killer Gen for a father, surely I can cope with a temperamental banker?
With a smile, she left the police station and headed for home. She had a letter to her parents to reclaim, and a longer one to write.
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