The Mystery of the Malachite Mouse
Mary Lou Mendum
Published as a part of A Companion In Zeor #13
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Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Sime~Gen Inc. All rights reserved.
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"Set me up with por-porshtan, bartender," slurred the newest patron to enter the saloon. "And call me a girl. Turlin is shell-celebrating his lucky kill tonight!"
From her bouncer's stool by the door, Eskalie Morlin lifted a dubious eyebrow. Given the stagger in Turlin's gait, the trader had already been celebrating his postsyndrome for some time. She doubted he would be capable of enjoying anything more strenuous, at least not until he'd slept off the porstan.
Fon, the Golden Gen's bartender, filled a glass without comment, and pocketed the coins the trader had laid on the bar. Frixella the shiltpron player zlinned the size of the tip from her vantage point on the small stage at the end of the bar. She hastened to end the mournful ballad she had been playing, and struck up a rollicking dance tune.
Turlin tossed the shiltpron player a coin, which she deftly fielded with two tentacles and slipped into her pocket, without missing a note. The trader blinked, then lifted his glass in a toast, his hand shaking unsteadily. "To the Shrine of the Sh-Starred Cross! Best Choice Kill I ever had."
A stab of disgust from across the room, accidentally magnified by Frixella's shiltpron, caught the drunk's attention. He pushed back from the bar and staggered over to the table where the jewel merchant Mon Ergest, Tormin's wealthiest and least loved citizen, had been suffering through his turnover with the aid of a small snifter of the Golden Gen's famous brandy. Eskalie, who had endured the same circumstance early the previous week, could not bring herself to begrudge the man whatever comfort the beverage offered.
"Whash-what's the matter?" Turlin scowled down at the shriveled jeweler. "You got something against killing?" The trader laughed unpleasantly.
Ergest set down his glass, making no effort to hide his distaste as he looked up at Turlin. "I see no reason to hunt Gens in the Shrines like a Raider, when there are plenty in the market." It was obvious to every Sime in the room that his objections to Shrine-hunting ran deeper than that.
The trader shook his head in amazement. "You're sho-soft. Who'd have thought it? Do you really think it helps a family if the Gen they raised makes it across the border? Gonna turn pervert next?" He held out his arms, letting his laterals peek suggestively from their sheaths.
A stab of fury convulsed the jewel merchant's nager, and the ambient took on a darker note as the bar's patrons zlinned the confrontation avidly. Frixella gave up on her dance tune and let the shiltpron jangle to a discordant halt.
Ergest's tentacles writhed as he visibly struggled to keep them from wrapping around Turlin's neck. "What would you know about families?" he snarled. "You sold your own son in the Market when he established!"
"Why lose my profit by paying sh-someone else to do it?" Turlin demanded belligerently.
Eskalie was already off of her stool and moving towards the confrontation. She kept her nager professionally neutral as she addressed the combatants in the cultured, upper-class tones of the banking heiress she had once been.
"Citizens, it is a serious issue on which gentlemen of honor may disagree. However, the Golden Gen is a place of entertainment. Perhaps you would prefer to resume your discussion at another time and place?"
Turlin turned his scowl on Eskalie, then blinked in confusion. "Who are you?" he demanded. In his befuddled state, he appeared to be having a hard time reconciling her genteel accent with her worn, serviceable clothing.
"Eskalie Morlin, of Kirlin Security and Investigations," she introduced herself. She had no real hope that the man would retain the information. Eskalie's face, figure and nager were so completely average that even sober, many people had difficulty remembering her name for more than five minutes. The anonymity had proved very useful in her chosen profession.
She smiled at Turlin. "Come, now, Tuib Turlin. You said you were here to celebrate, but your glass is empty. Why don't you come back to the bar and enjoy another porstan? On the house, of course." She slipped one arm behind her back and gestured urgently to Frixella with all four handling tentacles. The shiltpron player recalled herself with a start and began reinforcing Eskalie's efforts with soothing music. Gradually, the bar's patrons turned back to their drinks, as they realized that there was not going to be a brawl, after all.
The trader grumbled, but allowed himself to be led away. Eskalie delivered him to Fon's care and returned to soothe the obviously troubled jewel merchant. "Allow me to extend the apologies of the management, N'vet Ergest. We strive to allow our patrons to enjoy their drinks without such...interruptions."
Mon Ergest accepted the apology with a brief nod, which surprised Eskalie. The jeweler was well known in Tormin for pursuing every slight, no matter how trivial, until he had received complete satisfaction.
"Is something troubling you, N'vet?" she asked, letting her sympathy show.
Ergest concentrated on his brandy, seemingly engrossed in zlinning the patterns the liquid made as it swirled in the glass. "I'm not a pervert, am I?" he asked, his nager betraying his uncertainty. "Just because I believe that it's wrong to foil disappointed parents who want to dream their former child is still living, somewhere out there with the Wild Gens?" One tentacle gestured vaguely towards the Border, which at this point was only just over the nearby hills.
"Of course not, N'vet Ergest," Eskalie soothed. "It's a perfectly natural sentiment."
"It's so much harder, knowing your child was killed." The jeweler's nager collapsed with crippling grief. "No one should have to live with that."
Eskalie could zlin annoyance coming from the other customers, who had not come to the Golden Gen to experience such emotions. "Of course they shouldn't, N'vet," she agreed, seriously concerned now. "You're not really in the mood for company just now, I zlin. Let me help you to your horse."
Mon Ergest nodded numbly, pushing back from the table. "The luck just isn't with me any more," he muttered. "Stolen away. Lost everything: my two wives both dead, and my daughter..."
Shen! He's getting maudlin.
Eskalie resisted the temptation to point out that whatever he had lost, Ergest had also managed to gain a fortune large enough to buy Choice Kills for most of Tormin, although it still paled beside her parents' wealth. Instead, she murmured sympathetically as she accompanied him to the door, carefully keeping her own field interposed between the jeweler and the other customers. This, of course, meant that she herself was exposed to the full measure of his grief and self-pity.
What a job.
"Who'd have thought that Ergest, of all people, would object to someone finding a free kill?" Eskalie asked her colleagues the next morning, as she related the incident to them. "The man's a horror, the way he pinches pennies."
The three members of Kirlin Security and Investigations were gathered in the tiny front room of the firm's third floor offices. It was barely large enough to hold Amsil Kirlin's desk, two chairs, and a battered old stool. The back office, which Eskalie shared with Amsil's brother Sesfin, the filing cabinets, and a bookshelf which housed Sesfin's definitive collection of cheap horror novels, made it look spacious by comparison.
"Oh, Ergest used to be normal enough," Amsil Kirlin said, sipping at a mug of the third harvest trash which she and her brother insisted on calling trin tea. The brown eyes in her long face were solemn, making her look even more like a horse than usual. "He was a bit reserved after his second wife died giving birth to their daughter, but it wasn't until the girl established that he got really strange. He was trying to take her to the border, you see, and ended up killing her instead."
"The poor man," Eskalie said, shuddering. "No wonder he was so upset, when Turlin started boasting about killing an escaping Gen." She couldn't help feeling a certain amount of empathy for Ergest's daughter, as well. At barely six months past changeover, Eskalie remembered all too clearly the sleepless nights she had suffered through in her comfortable bed at the select Sommerin Academy, wondering if she would be one of the unlucky third of the children who would fail to make it to adulthood.
What would have happened to me, if I'd turned Gen instead of going through changeover?
Sesfin made a rude noise, tossing his lanky brown hair back from his large brown eyes. On him, the combination looked a bit less equine. "Serves the old miser right. It's against the law to take a Gen to the Border. Why waste a top-quality kill? If he didn't want to kill the Gen himself--and I can see why he wouldn't--he should have sold it to the Pens, and let someone else have it."
"Well, there are those who agree with you that every Gen should be killed, little brother," Amsil said, nodding at the copy of the weekly Tormin Tattler which lay open on her desk. "Councilman Whilly has another rant in the paper today."
Amsil flipped through the newspaper's thin pages to find the article. "Here's where he talks about people like Ergest." She began to read slowly, following the line of smudged type with one tentacle. "'The Gen shortages of the past year point up the urgency of ensuring a stable Gen supply. All citizens must do their part.. We can no longer afford an attitude which is all too common: the willingness to overlook friends and neighbors who selfishly take new Gens to the Border. Gens which by law should be sold to the Pens, where they would provide honest citizens with top-quality kills.'"
"I can't help thinking that he's less interested in providing me and you with kills than with the other consequences," Eskalie said, with a slightly cynical shrug. "Tighten the Border, and many desperate parents will give their children who establish to the Genfarms, to keep them from being killed. The Genfarms get new prime breeding stock for free, and they can still sell the extras as Choice Kills, as long as they're quiet about it."
"Still, it might lower the price of a good kill, if the supply was increased," Sesfin said thoughtfully. "And he's right. Showing a Gen to the Border is against the law."
Amsil shook her head. "Little brother, I hope you never have to see your own flesh and blood turn Gen. But if you do, you'll know why folks are willing to look the other way when their friends can't let a Gen they raised as their own family be killed."
"Besides," Eskalie pointed out, "the crackdown Whilly proposes would be bad for Border cities like Tormin. Those out-of-towners trying to save Gens stay in our inns, buy supplies in our stores at double the usual price...and lots of them celebrate afterwards by picking up a Choice Kill at our Gen Market."
"Not to mention the folks who sell information on 'safe routes' and Patrol schedules to the poor idiots," Amsil added. "And then turn around and get a second fee for telling the unlicensed Raiders where the Gen's gonna cross." She looked back down at the paper. "Although Whilly goes on to blame it all on the perverts, as usual." She adjusted the paper to a more convenient angle and continued.
"'The events of last summer, when an unusually strong offensive by the Wild Gens forced the military to confiscate Gens from the civilian supply, show the urgency of ensuring a stable Gen supply. This Territory can no longer afford to tolerate those selfish enough to horde Gens when their neighbors are dying of attrition. While disappointed parents might evoke some sympathy, there are others who lack even that excuse. Why should the Householders be allowed to keep some of the choicest kills in the Territory when the Pens are turning away honest, taxpaying citizens because the Gen supply is low?'"
"Old Windbag Whilly's got another point there," Sesfin remarked, his homely face intent with interest. "As far as I'm concerned, if the perverts want to live on fake Sime-kills, that's their business. However, there ain't no reason for them to hoard Gens they're not using when there's a shortage. Let 'em turn the extras over to the Pens. They can always claim replacements when the supply picks up again."
Amsil chuckled, laying the paper back down on top of her already overflowing desk. Like many Simes, she had a difficult time attending to paperwork when she was approaching need. In three days, after her kill, she would work through the pile, but until then, Gens were a much more consuming interest.
"It'd be a crying shame to waste Gens like the Householdings raise on a simple kill," she remarked dreamily. "Now, if you worked 'em up proper, maybe got a good shiltpron player to help set the mood...the whole town could party for weeks." Her long face split into a grin. "Now that, I'd purely love to zlin!"
Eskalie shook her head. "Amsil, I'd stay far away from Householding Gens, if I were you," she advised, kicking nervously at the front legs of the rickety stool. "They're dangerous."
Just how dangerous, she had discovered not long before. Large Gen hands clamping down on vulnerable laterals, then opening to let the still twitching corpse fall to the ground...
She shuddered and wrapped her handling tentacles around her chipped tea mug for what comfort the warm pottery could give. It's been two months. Will I never be free of the memory?
She shifted her weight gingerly on the stool, with due respect for the back left leg. It had a tendency to collapse if it was required to support any significant amount of weight. There had been talk of replacing it, but there was no room for another chair, even if they could afford to waste money on furniture.
"Dangerous? Nonsense," Amsil scoffed. "A Gen's a Gen, no matter who owns it. What do you think it could do, kill me?"
Yes! Eskalie wanted to say, but honor kept her silent. She salved her conscience with the thought that her friends were honest citizens, who didn't participate in the periodic pogroms launched against the "perverts". Since Householdings never willingly sold their stock, Amsil and Sesfin would be unlikely ever to get a chance to kill a Householding-trained Gen. Or try to do so, and end up like poor Yosum Forst...
Her former classmate had been an arrogant, twisted piece of scum, but no one deserved to die like that.
She returned her attention to Amsil, who was now laboriously working her way through the rest of the text of the Councilman's guest article.
"'The Council's investigation into the Gen shortage led to a determination that there were more than sufficient Gens being produced on the government Genfarms to supply the military and civilian Pens alike. It was the actions of selfish Gen hoarders like the Householders which led to honest citizens being denied their rightful kills!'"
Sesfin snickered. "That ring of Gen-thieving lorshes who were selling half the military Gen reserve to the private Genfarms might've had something to do with it as well, don't you think? What's the matter, Eskalie, didn't your uncle the General tell the Council how you cracked the case?"
Eskalie shrugged. "Of course he did."
It had been her own (and Kirlin Security's) greatest professional triumph to date, but it had come at a high cost. During the investigation, she had been propositioned by a former schoolmate who wanted to get his tentacles on her parents' wealth, had been kidnapped by an authentic Killer Gen right out of Sesfin's cheap horror novels, had barely escaped a Householder trying to seduce her into his perversion, and had been physically assaulted no less than four times. When she had finally presented her uncle with the evidence he required to catch the thieves and made it back to town, she had been battered, bruised, and near to attrition. She much preferred the relatively peaceful work of breaking up bar fights.
"Whilly can't afford to tell the whole story," Eskalie continued. "If he did, people might demand that the government launch a full-scale investigation of all Gen breeders and sellers. Whilly gets a lot of his support from the various Gen dealers. His brother-in-law, Duffy Naifels, has a big Genfarm near the Capitol, too. The man's a real weasel, and I'd be very surprised if his books could stand up to a good audit."
"You would know," Amsil said in a neutral tone, and Eskalie sighed. Most of the time, her colleagues treated her as one of the family. However, they never quite forgot that they were the bastard children of a caravan guard, while she was the runaway heiress of Nivet Territory's wealthiest banking family. She hadn't seen her parents since she'd left home a few days after her changeover, but the publicity surrounding her triumph had made anonymity impossible.
Eskalie didn't know how she felt about her parents. They had been close when she was a young child, but the instant she had reached the age where changeover--or its alternative--was possible, they had packed her off to the exclusive Sommerin Academy. She had spent two dreary years imprisoned behind neat stone walls, and her parents had ignored all the letters in which she had pleaded to be allowed to come home. They had finally given in and allowed her a short visit, and she'd gone through changeover on the second day of it. They had both seemed genuinely pleased at her celebration.
But what would they have done if I'd become a Gen instead? Would they have taken me to the border, as some parents do, or would they have shrugged off their disappointment and sold me to the nearest Gendealer?
There was also a more practical aspect to her reluctance to mend fences with her parents. Unless she wanted to give up her chosen profession and become a banker, Eskalie couldn't afford to antagonize Amsil and Sesfin. Taking time off to visit her parents and hobnob with the Territory's elite was not the best way to convince her colleagues that she was serious about her job, not just a rich kid looking for cheap thrills. They had enough trouble accepting her upper-class habits as it was.
Amsil was ready to continue the debate. "Perverts aside, little brother, I can't see that closing the border to stop folks from freeing an occasional Gen is cost-effective."
"It's the principle of the thing," Sesfin grumbled, only partially convinced. "People should obey the law. Right, Eskalie?"
Eskalie wasn't sure where she stood on the issue of Gen releases, but she was sure that taking sides would not smooth her way with her colleagues. She squirmed as the two siblings looked at her in appeal, both confident that she would take their side, and zlinned around for a distraction. She discovered it in the form of a strange nager in the hall.
Eskalie could zlin neither lust nor the frantic, need-like craving of an addict, so she concluded that the stranger was not one of Saucy Sloo's johns, or in search of the recreational pharmaceuticals sold in the third apartment on the floor. That meant...
"I think we've got a customer," she announced.
Amsil sprang to her feet with the impatience of need and jerked open the door. "Can I help you?" she asked.
The visitor took a quick step backwards, forcing his nager into blandness to indicate that he was not competing with Amsil for Gens. "Is this Kirlin Security?" His nager betrayed a hint of skepticism.
"Amsil Kirlin, at your service." She forced a smile and tried to moderate the need screaming from her nager. "Come in and have some tea." She stepped back to allow the man to enter.
The stranger shook his head, reached into the breast pocket of his shirt, and pulled out a creamy envelope. "I have a letter here for a N'vet Eskalie Morlin, care of this agency."
Eskalie had already abandoned her seat and started with Sesfin for their own office, to allow the prospective client to discuss his business privately with the firm's head. She paused at the sound of her name, and returned.
"A letter? Who could possibly be writing me?" She had had no contact with her parents, or her childhood friends, since she had run away from home. Her uncle the General sometimes invited herto his house to dine, but he always sent a military courier with the invitation.
The messenger gaped at her worn and patched garments, obviously trying to reconcile them with his mental image of a "N'vet". However, something in Eskalie's accent and matter convinced him he had found the proper person, for when she reached absently into her pocket and found a coin, he surrendered the letter without protest.
It was only when Amsil flashed distress, and the messenger smug satisfaction, that Eskalie zlinned the denomination of the coin and realized that she had grossly overpaid the man. Shrugging, she ripped open the creamy envelope and unfolded the paper inside.
The elegant letterhead made her flinch, as did the perfect, almost print-quality handwriting. It had appeared at the top of far too many of her student essays.
"What's the matter, Eskalie?" Sesfin asked, his concern obvious.
Eskalie forced her nager into a semblance of order, reminding herself that she was an adult, now. Rahah no longer had any power over her. "It's from the headmistress of my former school," she explained, going back to the top of the page to start over. "It appears they've been having some mysterious trouble, and require discreet assistance to sort things out."
Amsil's interest peaked at the mention of work. "We could really use some extra income, just now. What's the problem?"
"She doesn't say, really." Eskalie refolded the letter and returned it to the envelope. "It must be something potentially damaging to the school's reputation, though, or she wouldn't be asking for outside assistance, even from a former student."
The detective had a hard time imagining such a problem in the protected, dreary confines of her alma mater, but her curiosity had been roused. Besides, although she hadn't been the most popular student in the school, she found herself eager to discover the fates of her former classmates. Or one of them, anyway. Her childhood friend, Helka Arslan, had enrolled in the Sommerin Academy shortly after her own changeover, in hopes that Eskalie's luck might prove contagious.
"The Sommerin Academy, sendin' all the way to Tormin for our help," Amsil said, even need unable to completely dim her satisfaction. "Our reputation must be spreading."
"Amsil, I think she just selected the only name she knew in the field," Eskalie said, letting a hint of respectful apology show in her nager. "After what happened on the Forst Genfarm, I'm afraid my career must be choice gossip for half the elite families in the Territory."
The elder Kirlin grinned. "Kid, as long it brings in well-paying business, let 'em gossip all they want." She sobered, her mind turning to the practicalities. "Since she wrote to you directly, you should be in charge of the case. However, you're still pretty green. I'd better go along as well, so I can lend you a tentacle if necessary."
Eskalie tried to picture introducing her boss, with her horsey features, patched clothes, and coarse, lower-class speech, to the Sommerin Academy's refined Headmistress, and found her mind reeling at the prospect. "I'm sure I can handle it...," she started to demur.
Amsil clapped a good-natured hand on Eskalie's shoulder. "Course you can, kid, but there's always the chance of trouble on the road. Your uncle's troops haven't gotten all the riffraff. Besides, I ain't had a really good kill in months. The Penkeeper in Sommerin is an old pal of mine, and she owes me a few. I won't embarrass you with your client, never fear."
Eskalie was suddenly ashamed at her misgivings. Amsil is worth three of Headmistress Rahah, and she can't help her family any more than I can help mine. "I'd be happy to have you along, Amsil," she agreed, meaning every word.
"That's the spirit." Amsil was struck by a sudden idea. "Tell you what: after I've got my kill, we'll go out and spend an evening at the best shiltpron parlor in town. That Frixella is awful. Wait until you zlin a real expert!"
Sesfin's long face grew longer as his sister elaborated on her plans. "I don't suppose I could come along, too?" he asked wistfully.
"Sorry, little brother," Amsil said cheerfully. "Someone has to take care of the Golden Gen contract."
"How do you always manage to land the big out of town jobs, Eskalie?" Sesfin demanded. "Gypsy magic?"
"No, just lucky." Eskalie grinned, and went to pack.
Amsil's enthusiasm for the journey had dimmed considerably by the following morning. As she and Eskalie waited with their saddlebags outside of Danvan's cheap livery stable, her nager quivered with a novice rider's apprehension.
"Shen, those creatures look big," she muttered, as the stableboy led two elderly, swaybacked nags over to them.
Eskalie, who had learned to ride almost before she could walk, tried hard to control her amusement. To her more experienced eye, the beasts were hardly more than large ponies, and too lazy to throw even an inexperienced rider.
Which is just as well, she thought privately, after Amsil finally managed to get into the saddle of her dust-gray mount on the third try. Eskalie patiently showed her boss the correct way to hold the reins, and how to use them to guide the beast. The older Sime nodded, then clutched at the saddle with her handling tentacles as it followed Eskalie's mud-brown steed out of the stableyard.
Eskalie zlinned Amsil discreetly as they made their way towards the main road out of Tormin, but although her boss's nager flared apprehension at every lurch, she showed no immediate tendency to fall off. Fortunately, the livery hacks, unlike the high-strung, pedigreed blood stock Eskalie had ridden as a child, were well used to the noise and confusion of the city.
Amsil gradually relaxed as she because used to her horse's movements. As the day wore on, Eskalie was even able to persuade her boss to try an occasional trot. However, the dust-gray had a particularly jarring gait, and Amsil was unable to bear it for very long at a stretch.
Consequently, progress was slow. By the time they were winding through the rolling hills which surrounded Sommerin, Amsil was distinctly pale, and Eskalie was holding herself hypoconscious to avoid zlinning her boss's discomfort. Her own was bad enough; she hadn't been able to ride regularly since joining Kirlin Security.
The sun was almost touching the hills behind them, with five miles to go, when they pulled the horses to a walk in order to rest them (and their riders) enough for the final push. Eskalie stretched as well as she could, then grinned at her boss. "Ready to join the cavalry yet?"
"Shen, no. I haven't been this tired since back when Sesfin and I had just founded Kirlin Security. We had been hired to...."
Both Simes stiffened at the sound of approaching hoofbeats.
"Who's that behind us?" Eskalie asked.
The older Sime pulled on the reins to bring her horse to a halt, an order which the tired beast obeyed with a speed and precision which were conspicuously absent when it was asked for acceleration. Extending need-moistened laterals, Amsil zlinned along their backtrail, then shook her head.
"I can't zlin anything with the hill between us," she reported.
"Well, at least they're coming at an easy canter, not running their horses to death like Freeband Raiders do," Eskalie said, cocking her head to listen more closely. "I'd estimate there's about a dozen of them. It could be a military troop, I suppose." She nudged her own mount over to the side of the road. "Whoever they are, we'd best get out of their way, so they don't run us over."
However, when the troop rounded the curve, the riders in the tightly bunched, disciplined formation weren't a uniformed military patrol, but eight caravan guards wearing the blue-green and gray livery of Householding Dar. The horses they rode were elegant, spirited blood stock, still eager to run at the end of a hard day's ride. Only the very wealthiest citizens could afford to keep such animals in their stables--or perverts, who didn't ever have to worry about the cost of buying a decent Gen to kill.
Not that the Householders did without Gens. There were four with the guards, all alert, healthy, and as spirited as the horses. Not for the first time, Eskalie wished that the government would make the perverts reveal some of their secrets to the Territory's other Gen breeders. It was unfair of the Houses to raise some of the best-zlinning Gens in the Territory, and then just keep them as pets instead of killing them like decent people.
Unlike Eskalie, Amsil had never had a Prime Kill, and had long since accepted that she would never be able to afford one. She zlinned the approaching group avidly, simply enjoying the show.
But then, Eskalie realized, when your only Prime Kills are the ones you dream about, you're free to make them ten times better than any real Gen. Indeed, when Kirlin Security had landed a temporary contract to patrol Tormin's Gen Market for pickpockets and other nuisances, Amsil and Sesfin had made a game out of picking the choicest Prime Kill of each day's auction, with a fastidiousness that even Mon Ergest couldn't match.
"I like that brown-haired male in the back," Amsil said, as if following Eskalie's thoughts. "It's got a real smooth nager, with just enough bite to add a little spice."
Eskalie had been trying not to zlin the Householders' Gens too closely, for fear that they would take offense. On the other hand, the pet Gen that Dar had loaned her for the Forst Genfarm investigation had been the most extraordinary example of its kind that she had ever encountered. It had had an intensely powerful, brilliant core to its nager, overlaid with shallower currents, like the sun shining through fog. She couldn't resist the chance to zlin that remarkable nager once more, from a relatively safe distance.
However, when she let her own laterals extend, it was quickly apparent that while the Gen Amsil had indicated had an unusually high field, even compared to a Wild Gen, its nager lacked both the power and the subtle responsiveness to Sime fields which had made Tallin's so unusual. As the Householders passed, she saw that this Gen male was also much younger, the brown hair untouched by gray.
Both relieved and obscurely disappointed, Eskalie automatically curbed her mount as it attempted to snatch an illicit snack, then nudged it back onto the road. "Come on," she said. "We'd better get going. Do you think you could manage one more trot?"
The crickets were singing their nightly chorus when the weary riders encountered the first outpost of Sommerin, in the form of a large band of migrant farm hands. They were camped around an old silo which stood at the base of a steep hill in what had once been a pasture, but had long since gone to weeds. The wide swaths of trampled vegetation and the odors of garbage and human waste suggested that the wanderers had been settled there for a week or two.
They must have found work picking the early fruit, Eskalie thought. It was a reasonable deduction. Sommerin's farmers grew an abundance of the fresh fruits and vegetables required to keep children and Gens healthy. The care and harvest of the fields required a great deal of hand labor. It was a season of comparative plenty for those transients and drifters who were desperate enough to apply for such low-paying, backbreaking labor in hopes of earning enough to pay their Pen taxes.
As the road curved around the hill, it quickly became obvious that not all of the drifters' pay was being saved for the tax collector. Nestled into the Sommerin side of the hill was an old barn which appeared to have been converted into some sort of pub. The renovation had not included much in the way of repairs to the dilapidated building, but a freshly painted sign (crudely scrawled in foot-high letters on the wall itself) proclaimed the edifice to be the Smuggler's Roost, and advertised porstan and the "Best Sheeltpron in Town." The wash of magnified pain and kill-lust leaking through the walls, and an occasional fragment of music, made the purpose of the building clear even to the illiterate.
Amsil cocked her head at the sound, and extended her laterals to zlin the whole effect. "That shiltpron player's not half bad," she commented. "Much better than Frixella at the Golden Gen. Tell you what, kid. We'll come back here tomorrow night."
Eskalie had already deduced that the Smuggler's Roost was the sort of pub that her parents had warned her to shun, where the lower classes gathered to intoxicate themselves with cheap porstan and shiltpron music. The trio of workmen who staggered out the door as Eskalie and Amsil passed did nothing to reassure her. They appeared much the worse for their evening's entertainment.
"Thought ya said this was a place with good comp'ny," one of them complained loudly, nursing a black eye.
"It wash, three weeks ago," his buddy slurred, casting a resentful look towards the hill which hid the migrants' filthy camp with the contempt only a laborer with a permanent position could feel. "Before them shedoni-doomed lowlifes moved in. City should move 'em out. Whadda we pay taxes for, anyway?"
"Ah, be a sport," the third workman slurred through a newly acquired gap in his teeth. "It was a good fight."
The more decadent big-city shiltpron parlors were rumored to buy Gens for their customers to abuse, providing fear and pain to magnify the effect of the music. It appeared that this cheap imitation had to use the pain of brawling customer instead.
"Amsil, are you sure you don't want to check out the other parlors first?" Eskalie asked, trying to hide her distaste for the proposed entertainment.
Amsil looked at her junior employee sharply. "What's the matter, kid? Too low-class for you?"
"No!" Eskalie hastened to assure her boss. "It's just that I'd hate to make a hasty decision without considering the options. Do you take the first Gen you're offered at the Pen, without zlinning the rest of the stock?"
As Eskalie had hoped, the mention of Gens was enough to distract her boss from thoughts of entertainment. After zlinning the shiltpron parlor longingly one more time, Amsil allowed herself to be led away. After the long day's ride, Eskalie herself would have found a revival of Ancient operas more interesting than a shiltpron, and she would gladly have exchanged both for a hot bath and a glass of trin tea.
There were plenty of inns in Sommerin which offered these amenities, but their limited budget restricted their choices to one: the Market Inn. It had once been an elegant building, but that had been during the previous century. As the city had grown, the noise, smell and confusion of the main roads had grown with it. The relocation of the Animal Market to the adjoining crossroads ten years before had driven off any remaining customers who could afford something better. Still, the innkeeper and her husband did their best to keep he place respectable. There was a sign at the desk warning prostitutes that clients could not be entertained on the premises, and stating that the inn did not rent rooms to perverts.
Privately, Eskalie doubted that any Householder would risk staying at the dilapidated inn, when the comfort and safety of Householding Dar was only half a mile away. Still, the notice showed that the Inn's proprietors weren't yet desperate enough to take any customers who offered.
The attic room to which Amsil and Eskalie were shown was clean enough, and the worn coverlet on the narrow bed had been neatly patched. There was no room for a Gen cage, like the better inns provided their customers, but then, Eskalie suspected that few of the Inn's clientele were able to afford to feed a Gen's huge appetite. It was much cheaper to wait and claim a Gen just before one's kill.
Eskalie got her hot bath, and insisted on sharing it with Amsil. It made them both feel a bit more like Simes, instead of something the cat dragged in. Even so, when Amsil decided to have a mug of porstan in the public room before retiring, Eskalie declined to accompany her, citing the necessity of sleep.
However, when she was alone, she stood for a few minutes, staring at the bed apprehensively. She had to sleep, if she was to be clearheaded enough to work in the morning. On the other tentacle, she was over a week past turnover. Without Sesfin's reassuring presence beside her, she feared the inevitable need nightmares. Amsil had assured her that her dreams would become less upsetting as she grew more accustomed to being Sime, but Eskalie had yet to notice such a trend.
Unwilling to face the chore of sleep just yet, she went over to the window and pushed aside the faded curtains. The panes were old and scratched, and the frame was warped, but with a little augmentation, she was able to force the window open. After cleaning the sill with a rag scrounged from a drawer, she sat and leaned out over the street to enjoy the view.
The evening was still young, and there was plenty of traffic crowding the cobblestoned thoroughfare below. An oxcart, half filled with produce rumbled by, its poorly greased axles squealing, and a shopkeeper closing his store for the evening hurled an obscene suggestion about maintenance after its driver. There were laborers just going home after a long day's work, and other citizens who had completed their day's tasks and were now in search of entertainment. A gang of street urchins chased each other down the street, no doubt lightening a few purses as they ran. There was a sprinkling of travelers, too, heading their weary horses towards a night's shelter.
The hollow clopping of prancing hoofs on stone caught Eskalie's attention, and she gasped with envy as a little black mare danced around the corner. The elegant creature had obviously been ridden hard that day, but its tiny ears pricked alertly, and it still had the energy to shy as the shopkeeper slammed his shutters closed and barred them.
The mare's rider controlled the beast with an effortless ease that spoke of long practice. The show of expertise diverted Eskalie's attention from the horse to the rider, and she started as she recognized the woman's nager.
"Semma Arslan!" she called in astonishment.
Semma was the older sister of Eskalie's childhood friend Helka. Although the woman now lived halfway across the Territory with her husband, a noted horse breeder, Semma was one of the few former acquaintances whom Eskalie had seen since she had run away from home. When the detective, in her disguise as a customer, had attended a party at the Forst Genfarm, Semma had assisted her to fend off the persistent, and unwelcome, attentions of the son of the house, Yosum Forst.
Eskalie's own hasty departure from the Genfarm later that evening had prevented her from thanking the woman properly. With a vague thought of extending her gratitude, and perhaps getting word of her friend Helka, Eskalie zlinned Semma deeply, hoping that focused observation from an unusual direction would catch the woman's attention without causing a public scene.
The roiling chaos of grief, denial, and helpless anger caused Eskalie to recoil as soon as she got a clear reading of the other Sime's nager. Semma was usually a cheerful, outgoing person, but at the moment, she was so upset that she never noticed she was being zlinned with more than casual interest. If a gang of armed muggers had come out of the alley to surround her, she would have ridden right over them, oblivious to their existence.
The elderly servant riding by her side on a placid bay gelding was more alert. Toria was a prune-faced, humorless woman, as status-conscious as only a senior servant could be, and Eskalie had never understood why Semma tolerated her presence.
Still, for all her faults, Toria was loyal to her mistress's interests. She immediately scanned the area, zlinning, listening and looking for the source of the interest in her employer. It didn't take her long to locate the detective leaning out of the window, and two years and a new set of tentacles hadn't changed Eskalie enough to prevent Toria from recognizing her mistress's former neighbor.
Eskalie had known that her eccentric choice of career would raise eyebrows among her former friends and acquaintances, once it became known. However, she was not prepared for the well-bred sneer that raised Toria's upper lip, nor for the sudden contempt which laced her nager.
Toria's reaction finally penetrated her mistress's distraction, and Semma zlinned around for its source. When she finally glimpsed Eskalie leaning out of the top window of the Market Inn, a look of poorly disguised horror crossed her face.
Eskalie was suddenly acutely conscious of the worn and patched shirt she had put on after her bath, and that she was occupying the lowest-rent room of the cheapest hostelry in town. Her face flamed with shame at her poverty, and she suddenly wished that she had thought to keep her attention to herself, and let Semma pass in peace.
Semma had apparently reached the same conclusion. She looked quickly away and nudged the black mare into a trot. In a moment, she and Toria had disappeared around the corner.
Depressed by more than her approaching need, Eskalie ducked back into the bare, comfortless room. She closed the window to discourage any cat burglars desperate enough to believe that the patrons of the Market Inn might actually have something worth stealing, and went to bed.
However, her sleep was troubled, and by more than simple need nightmares. The normal dreams of death by attrition alternated with dreams in which she had established and was attacked by her parents, or in which she was Sime, but was still attacked by Yosum Forst for her selyn. That was bad enough, but then came the dream in which she was helplessly driven to attack Tallin, the Giant Killer Gen. She woke just as its huge hands twisted under her tentacles and clamped down on her forearms.
With a choked cry, Eskalie sat bolt upright in the bed, her heart pounding, convinced that her laterals were fatally crushed. For a long moment, all she could do was pant, and let the comforting reality of the room soak gradually into her consciousness. The walls of the inn's attic were poorly insulated, and the antics of the couple in the neighboring room, as they enjoyed postsyndrome, provided an additional anchor.
Still, it was fully two minutes before she was calm enough to massage the cramps out of her cringing laterals and think rationally about her dreams. It was normal enough for her to have nightmares about establishment, she knew. After years of awaiting changeover, it took time for new Simes to get used to the certainty that they weren't going to become animals, fair game for any adult to kill. It took even longer to get over feeling guilty about those friends or siblings who hadn't been so lucky, and despite her accomplishments, Eskalie was not quite six months a Sime.
And then, just when I started believing I was safe as a Sime, Yosum proved me wrong. Her former classmate had made it clear that her tentacles didn't disqualify her from being killed, and that she would never truly be safe. Her attacker had then been drawn off by the trained Dar Gen, Tallin, which had lured Yosum into attacking it instead--and then calmly destroyed him.
Until that moment, Eskalie had believed Giant Killer Gens to be an invention of the hack writers who turned out the lurid tales her lover Sesfin bought, whenever a loose coin passed through his tentacles.
Ever since she had zlinned Yosum die, Eskalie had been haunted by the fear that one day she, too, would discover too late that the Gen she was trying to kill could turn the tables on her. Even with the listless, drugged creatures from the public Pen, she had to nerve herself up for each kill.
It was ridiculous to be afraid of something as harmless as a Pen-raised Gen. However, Tallin had appeared to be equally harmless. Before it killed her classmate, the Gen had followed her around for several days like the obedient pet she had been told it was. It had even allowed itself to be handled by strange Simes without a fuss.
All of which proved that past history was no guarantee that a particular Gen wouldn't turn rogue.
If Tallin had learned to kill Simes at Householding Dar, the chances were that it wasn't the only one of their Gens which knew the secret of Sime vulnerability. It would certainly be an obvious trick to teach a Gen being trained to fight Simes, if one could accept the idea of living surrounded by Killer Gens.
No wonder the Householders have turned to Sime-kills. In a Householding, only the channels took selyn directly from the Gens. While a Killer Gen, like a performing circus bear, would never be completely safe to handle, a Sime who had trained the Gen personally, and knew its personality, would run far less risk.
She supposed that for the perverts, the danger from their Gens was less than the danger they experienced on a daily basis from the less affluent townsfolk who envied them the possession of such Choice Kills.
Little do those idiots know how lucky they are that they can't have what they covet!
Eskalie shuddered, then wrapped the patched blanket around herself and leaned back against the rickety headboard to wait for Amsil. Perhaps with another person in the room, she could get the sleep she required without paying such a heavy price in nightmares.
The next morning Eskalie took special pains with her appearance. Still stinging from the pervious night's snub from Semma Arslan, and unwilling to let Headmistress Rahah and her former classmates know of her current poverty, she brought out a carefully hoarded outfit. The rust colored tunic with dark brown trim went well over the form-fitting black pants. Soft leather boots and a short dress whip completed the effect.
The costume was one of the few she had managed to salvage from the "debutante's wardrobe" her uncle had provided for her spying mission to the Forst Genfarm. It was not only thoroughly respectable, but it managed to make even Eskalie's undistinguished face look memorable.
Without a maid, she couldn't put her hair up in the latest fashion, but ten minutes in front of the cracked mirror in the communal bathroom resulting in an acceptably neat effect. I'll never be a beauty, she admitted without much regret, as she inspected the image one more time, but at least now I look like a Morlin.
The success of her efforts was rewarded by widened eyes and reflexive deference from the innkeeper's husband when Eskalie and Amsil went down to the public room for a quick cup of tea.
Amsil clutched at her glass with the nervousness of hard need. Her preoccupation did not prevent her from offering her junior employee advice, however. "Don't forget to negotiate a proper fee, old school or not," she cautioned. "They're hiring you in your professional capacity, after all. With the sort of tuition those places take in, they can afford to pay you what you're worth. And maybe just a bit more."
After assuring her employer that she would not neglect the financial aspects of the investigation, and that she would return back in the evening to report her progress, Eskalie finished her tea and headed for the Sommerin Academy. It was a fair distance, since the school was in the respectable part of town, far from the noise and confusion of the market. The detective wished she could have used one of the rented horses for the journey, but the broken-down beasts would have destroyed her carefully built image of prosperity. At least there were fewer horse droppings and other noxious garbage to avoid as she neared her destination.
The Sommerin Academy was much as she remembered it: a solid, unforgiving facade of stone. The small grounds in back were fenced in by a stone wall. The grass had long since been trampled to death, and even weeds had been unable to find a toehold in the packed earth. Only the old oak tree provided a glimpse of the natural world, and it was slowly being destroyed by ants. It had already lost several large branches, revealing the hollow core inside.
Squaring her shoulders against the irrational feeling that she was preparing to visit a prison, Eskalie walked up to the entrance and gave a firm pull on the bell rope. The heavy wooden doors were too thick to zlin through, but she knew there was always a servant on duty, just in case one of the students' wealthy relatives should decide to pay a call. When five minutes had passed without a response, the detective pursed her lips and tugged the rope again, sending an imperious clang through the building.
"All right, all right, I'm coming," a muffled voice growled. "You don't hafta annoy the whole school. Show a little patience, why doncha?"
There was a thump as the bolt was withdrawn, and the door creaked open. Through the crack peered the face of Sek, one of the Academy's three footmen. His drunken unpredictability had frightened Eskalie when she had been a student, as porstan tended to unleash his mean streak. At times, he would disappear for up to a week, only to return reeking of spirits and reeling from the effects of combining Gen pain and shiltpron. It was always worse when he was post, and he had obviously killed within the past two days. Just as obviously, he'd celebrated postsyndrome with his usual excesses: his face was covered with purple bruises from brawling, and the pain was making him even more surly than usual.
Now that she was grown, Eskalie discovered that Sek no longer had the power to intimidate her. She had faced much worse and survived it; mean drunks were only an annoyance. She pursed her lips as she looked at the disheveled footman, not bothering to hide her disgust.
When Sek recognized Eskalie, and zlinned her reaction, his belligerence turned to abject servility.
"Pardon, N'vet," he whined, his handling tentacles knotting nervously as he held the door open for her, bowing over and over as he tried to atone for his mistake. Each movement sent a wave of pain out into the ambient, as several cracked and improperly bandaged ribs grated against one another. "I thought you was the delivery boy with the groceries, come to the wrong door again, N'vet. Please don't tell the headmistress, N'vet. She'd send me away without a reference, she would, and I haven't been able to afford a good kill in months, what with bein' the sole support of me aged mother, N'vet."
"The only thing you support," Eskalie said as she entered, "is half the brew pubs in the city. I don't know why Mollins didn't throw you out years ago."
"He's a good man, N'vet, a kind and merciful man. Just like you, N'vet, so if you'd be so kind as to overlook this, I'd be ever so grateful..."
"Then show your gratitude by informing Headmistress Rahah that I wish to speak with her. At once."
"Of course, N'vet, right this minute, N'vet..."
Eskalie sighed as the man scurried away, too cowed to remember to invite her to take a seat while she waited. How could I ever have been afraid of that? Like most childhood fears, it proved laughable once zlinned for what it was.
She sat on one of the comfortably padded benches and looked around at the gray stone walls. She remembered them as forbidding and cold, but now, the nageric insulation provided by the granite gave her a surprisingly pleasant sense of privacy and security, and the dim light didn't bother her at all.
A few minutes later, the Academy's butler, Mollins, arrived to show her to the headmistress's office. He bowed gracefully to exactly the proper degree, and murmured, "N'vet Morlin. It is good to see you again."
Eskalie fought conflicting emotions again, as she tried to reconcile the perfectly deferential, obviously harmless servant in front of her with the monster in her memory. It was Mollins's duty to zlin each student at the Academy daily for signs of changeover. Eskalie still had nightmares in which she stood in line outside of the butler's office, waiting for her turn. There had been no conversation in that line, as each child prayed or clutched a lucky charm, hoping for a favorable verdict. Every once in a while, a student failed to emerge from the office, and would never be seen or heard from again.
The butler's face was as blank and expressionless as she remembered, but the genuine respect and deference in his nager made it clear that he was merely a loyal servant behaving with the rigid formality appropriate to his position. He's not the cold, unfeeling monster of my nightmares, Eskalie realized. Are the rest of my childhood memories of this place just as wrong?
Shamed by her childish misunderstanding, she inquired politely about his health, referencing the neat bandage on his right hand, and was rewarded by a burst of genuine warmth.
"It is kind of you to inquire, N'vet Morlin. The injury is slight, and should heal rapidly once I've killed."
The man's a regular human being. Who'd have thought it?
It was as well that Eskalie was prepared to doubt her previous impressions of the Sommerin Academy and its staff. That prevented her from making a total fool of herself when Headmistress Rahah greeted her with a prim and subdued but very real affection.
"It's so good to see a former student doing well," the gray-haired woman said, as she offered Eskalie a cup of tea. "And it's very kind of you to come to help us with our little trouble."
"About that trouble..." Eskalie said, sipping delicately from the fine porcelain cup. "Your letter was somewhat short on details, and I admit to some difficulty imagining why you would require the services of a professional investigator."
Thus recalled to business, much of the fond nostalgia disappeared from Rahah's nager, to be replaced by embarrassment and deep worry. Eskalie had zlinned such emotions before, in other clients who had sought out Kirlin Security. Amsil considered it a good sign, since such customers were desperate enough not to argue too much over the fee, and usually paid promptly rather than let it be known that they had hired a professional investigator.
"It's....rather difficult to explain," Rahah began tentatively.
"'Need doesn't end until you kill your Gen,'" Eskalie quoted. "Why don't you begin at the beginning?"
"Well..." Rahah shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "I have reason to believe that one of the students has been stealing from the others. Small things, easy to conceal, but valuable for all of that."
"Are you sure that one of the servants isn't the culprit?" Eskalie asked. "I have trouble imagining why any student here would do such a thing."
"So do I," Rahah admitted. "However, Mollins questioned all the servants quite closely, and they all zlinned perfectly honest in their denials."
Eskalie nodded, accepting the testimony tentatively, while making a mental note to consult Mollins on the exact phrasing he had used during the interrogation. While it was almost impossible for a Sime not to zlin the attempt to deceive behind a direct lie, it was quite possible for a reasonably clever person to divert a line of questioning by telling only part of the truth, in such a manner that the interrogator came to the wrong conclusion.
"How long has this been going on?" she asked. "And what has been taken?"
"It started about a month after you left. Neeka Sereko reported that her great-aunt's ring was missing."
"The one with the carved opal?" Eskalie remembered the ring well. Neeka boasted that her great-aunt had been wearing it when she had forged the alliance with the Liordins which formed the basis for the family fortune, and that it had been bringing luck to her family ever since.
"Yes. While I usually don't encourage students to wear such valuable keepsakes, the child was attached to it, and I didn't have the heart to make her keep it in the safe. I should have been more firm." Rahah's nager twisted with regret.
"That's locking the Pen gates after the Gens are stolen," Eskalie said briskly. "What else has been taken?"
"A pocket watch belonging to Vag's grandfather, Blista's mother's pearl necklace, and that little ivory statue of Quan's."
Eskalie considered the inventory of missing objects. "All items which were known to be routinely worn or carried by their owners. And among the most valuable of such objects among the student body, unless I'm much mistaken."
"Yes." Rahah wrung her tentacles in distress. "Whoever the thief was, he or she knew exactly which fellow students had things which were worth taking."
The detective hesitated, but felt compelled to venture, "Are you quite sure that theft was involved? Children do have a tendency to mislay things, even valuable things, and not remember that they've done it."
Eskalie herself had mislaid a favorite necklace just days before leaving the Sommerin Academy for the short visit home which had ended in her changeover. She had been quite upset, because it had been given to her by the Morlin stablemaster as a good luck charm when she was learning to ride. She had felt at the time that losing it would decrease her chances of going safely through changeover. However, the little mouse amulet, crudely carved into a hunk of common malachite, had been nothing to tempt a thief.
Rahah shook her head. "If there were only one or two objects missing, I might think so. However, when the four most valuable and easily accessible keepsakes in the school all disappear within a span of a few months, I have to assume that it's theft. Besides, nothing has been missed for the past three weeks, since I had Mollins question the servants. I suspect that the thief has decided to lay low for a while."
"But you wish the missing objects--and the thief--found?"
"Yes. I can hardly question the children myself. Just think what their parents would say! However, you were their classmate. They will confide in you, as they never would to a stranger. You were always clever; I'm sure that you could spot the thief through indirect means, without offering insult to the innocent students." The headmistress's nager brimmed with hope.
Eskalie nodded judiciously. "I would be happy to accept the case, on behalf of Kirlin Security and Investigations." Mindful of Amsil's stern warning, she forced herself to bring up the uncomfortably vulgar subject of remuneration. "You do realize that I am a professional investigator these days. My fee would be..." she mentally estimated the probable difficulty of the case, Rahah's personal wealth, and her degree of desperation, and named a figure that was three times Kirlin Security's usual daily charge. "Any unusual expenses, of course, would be extra. However, I do not expect any, since the investigation will be conducted on the premises. Our policy is to ask for the first day's fee in advance."
"Of course," Rahah murmured, not even blinking at the outrageous sum. "I'll have Mollins withdraw it from the safe as soon as he's finished serving the children's tea. Will that be satisfactory?"
"Very," Eskalie agreed, wondering if she should have asked for more. However, there was no reason to be too greedy.
"We do try to maintain a strict schedule for the children, as you know," the headmistress said. "It would disrupt their studies least if you began interviewing them during the midmorning break. Besides, it will do them all good to see tentacles on a former classmate. Children that age are always so paranoid that they...won't get tentacles."
"Of course." Eskalie stood, waving Rahah back to her seat as the older Sime made to stand. "I remember the way to the students parlor very well, and I'm sure you have a great deal to do."
With a murmured exchange of the pleasantries covered so exhaustively in the Academy's etiquette classes, Eskalie took her leave and made her way to the students parlor. This, at least, was as she remembered: a large room with well-scuffed rugs on the floor, and tired, overstuffed chairs and couches which had long since come out second best in their encounters with childish wiggles.
The furniture was placed in small, intimate groupings, and students were expected to practice the art of polite conversation as the price of admission to such "adult" surroundings. The detective seated herself on the least worn armchair to wait. It was near the fireplace and the glass doors which looked out over the well trampled yard. It was also the end of the room favored by the older children. In their roles as absolute masters of their younger peers, they were more likely to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.
As she shifted on the elderly cushion, trying to find a spot devoid of lumps, she reflected that a mere six months ago, before her changeover, this particular chair, with its pathetic view of the dying tree, had been an unattainable throne. It was reserved for the sole use of the top of the student pecking order. Lesser beings defiled it with their inferior posteriors at their peril, quite literally when Yosum Forst had bullied his way to the coveted honor.
The whole business seemed utterly silly to her now.
A few minutes later, a swarm of children burst into the room, all chattering at the tops of their voices. She scanned the faces, looking for Helka, but it was difficult to pick out one face in the crowd. It was similar to the bustle of the Tormin Gen Market, where Eskalie had worked as a security guard, except that the audible noise wasn't echoed on the nageric level. She zlinned more deeply, forgetting for the moment that she had never observed her friend's nager, and found herself surprised.
She had never had the chance to zlin a large group of children in the six months since her changeover, particularly not in the absence of other adults. It wasn't that the children lacked nagers entirely, like animals. She could zlin their emotions if she tried. However, their fields had no power to affect her own nager, no matter how excited they became.
I never noticed before just how strange children are. It's almost as if they're only half there: ghosts, maybe, seeking desperately for a way to become human.
And a third of them would never find it.
Setting aside a pity she could ill afford, Eskalie prepared to do her job.
Her chair's current "owner" turned out to be Emlee Bartlestone, not Gavvin Reston, as she had expected. A quick glance around the room confirmed the Gavvin was no longer among the student body. I guess his wait is over, one way or the other.
If visitors were few and far between at the Academy, adult visitors willing to talk to children who were not blood relatives were almost unheard of. Emlee settled herself in the chair next to Eskalie's and signaled for her current court to arrange themselves on the two couches. When they had settled, and were free to admire the sophistication with which she handled such a grown-up task, she poured tea all around and smiled brightly at the visitor.
"Why, Eska--I mean, Miz Morlin," she gushed, fluttering her eyelashes in an absurd imitation of adult flirtation. "Such a pleasant surprise. It's so good to see you again. It was really quite naughty of you to change over during that visit to your parents, you know. And then you didn't write to let your dear friends here know what happened..."
Since Emlee and the rest of the "in" crowd hadn't bothered to pass the time of day with Eskalie when she had been a fellow student, the detective was less than overwhelmed with these protestations of eternal friendship. However, there was no mistaking Emlee's sincerity when she gazed enviously at Eskalie's tentacles and commanded, "Now, you really must tell us all about it!"
For the next five minutes, the bemused detective fielded a barrage of eager questions on her changeover. The children weren't particularly interested in hearing her describe the experience itself. The Sommerin Academy offered comprehensive changeover training, after all, and that was one subject which interested even the most apathetic students.
No, what the children wanted to know was what she had done to make the changeover happen to her. She was forced to recall everything about the week before it began: her hairstyle, her clothing and accessories, what she had eaten, the books she had been reading, whether her bedroom at her parents house was on the north or south side of the building, and how many windows it had. Each answer was dissected for clues, in the desperate search for some magic ritual which could ensure that its user would become safely Sime.
Was I even that pitiful? she asked herself, as yet another argument broke out. But its subject confirmed that she must have been.
"You're wrong, Berri," Emlee decreed with the lofty assurance of an Authori ty. "It couldn't have been the cold showers. It has to have been the necklace she wore to dinner. I told you, you have to wear that carved stone if it's going to work."
Stung, Berri shook his head. "Wearing only works for jewelry. Gavvin always said that to be effective, a lucky amulet had to rest in the seat of your power."
Shocked silence broke out among the group of children, as the taboo against mentioning those of their number who had "disappeared" was broken.
Safely Sime, Eskalie was able to view the situation with a bit more perspective. Gavvin always was tall, and he was putting on bulk even six months ago. I guess it wasn't just a family resemblance to that tall uncle of his, after all.
Emlee's face turned red with indignation. "Well, Helka Arslan took cold showers, so you're just as wrong!"
Eskalie's perspective dissolved like a Wild Gen's composure when a Sime fixed on it for a kill. "Helka is...gone?"
Emlee was immediately overcome with contrition at having upset the school's visitor. "Yes, a week ago. I'm sorry, Miz Morlin. I'd heard she was a friend of yours."
"Yes, she was."
For the first time, Eskalie truly understood the reasons behind her parents refusal to let her attend the same school as her friend. Like most such schools, the Sommerin Academy discouraged maintaining childhood friendships, on the grounds that they were distracting for students. Besides, any such relationship would be so profoundly altered by changeover that it would almost have to be rebuilt from scratch--and if one friend didn't go through changeover, it was easier on the survivor if the friendship had begun to fade before that sad event.
Eskalie was discovering the hard way that her friendship with Helka had not had time to fade enough. She tried to picture a Gen Helka, nager throbbing with selyn as she chattered on about the latest amusing antics of her pet cat, and found her imagination unequal to the task.
"Helka thought that attending your school would ensure that she'd go through changeover as well," Berri explained. "I guess that doesn't work, either."
Zlinning that the children were finally ready for a change of topic, Eskalie recalled herself to duty and deftly turned the conversation to the missing valuables.
"Oh, yes, I remember Neeka's ring," Emlee acknowledged readily. "She was so upset when it disappeared."
The other children also admitted to familiarity with the missing objects, and with several others of lesser value which had not been reported to the Headmistress. However, although Eskalie was zlinning them carefully, none of the childish nagers displayed the sort of anxiety, discomfort, or wariness she would expect from a thief when the subject of his or her misdeeds came up in conversation.
Taking her leave of Emlee's clique, Eskalie moved on to the next group, and repeated her interrogation. By the time tea was finished, she had managed to cover about a third of the student body, without finding a trace of the thief. During the children's lunch, by choosing her seat carefully, she was able to delete a dozen more students from her list of suspects.
Rahah had stressed discretion, rather than speed, so Eskalie did not persist when the children departed for their afternoon sessions in the classroom. Instead, she slipped out and took a walk through the crowded marketplace. After the ghostly nagers of the children, and the news about her friend Helka, the cheerfully frantic ambient was a welcome change.
When she returned to the Sommerin Academy, there was already another visitor waiting in the hall: Semma Arslan.
"Eskalie!" the older Sime said, and blushed in furious embarrassment as she took in the detective's fashionable clothing. "I am sorry about last night. I forgot that your occupation might require you to wear...different...clothing and visit strange places for professional reasons."
Eskalie genuinely liked Semma, and wanted to spare her further embarrassment. She told herself that this was the reason for her failure to admit that it was her current costume which was being worn for "professional reasons", not the patched shirt of the previous evening.
"It was a natural mistake," she said, making her nager as soothing as possible, when she was only a few short days from her kill. "What brings you here?" Despite a careful repair job to her face, Eskalie could see the telltale traces of prolonged crying in the older Sime's reddened eyes, and zlin a haggard instability in her nager.
The detective regretted the question as Semma's nager exploded into grief. "It's Helka," she admitted, as a tear escaped from one eye and trickled down her powdered cheek. "She insisted on coming here to finish her schooling, after she heard you changed over. Said it would bring her luck. But last week there was an accident, and..."
"It was an accident? I'd thought..." Beneath the tears she couldn't shed for her friend, Eskalie found herself strangely relieved that Helka had died a person, not established as she'd originally assumed. Embarrassed by the mistake, she found herself unwilling to admit to Semma that she had assumed the woman's much-loved younger sister had established.
"I'm here to collect her effects," Semma admitted. "There wasn't much, I'm afraid, but if there's something that you would like? To remember her by?"
Struck by the older Sime's thoughtfulness at such a difficult time, Eskalie offered tentatively, "There was a copper duck pin that I gave her for Year's Turning long ago. It was not particularly valuable, but she wore it often."
"I remember it," Semma agreed. "It is yours."
"It could have been worse," the older Sime said bravely. "Mother and Father paid the extra fee to have her taken to the border if..." She broke off uncomfortably. "But at least she died human."
The detective nodded, resisting the urge to shuffle awkwardly, or better yet, to flee until she found some privacy in which to regain her composure. She was rescued by Mollins, who chose that moment to approach and offer a respectful bow to Semma.
"Headmistress Rahah will see you now," he said with the deadpan self-effacement of a well-trained servant. However, his nager showed a very sincere, if subdued, sympathy. It managed to offer comfort without intruding. Eskalie noted the effect with a detached interest, even through her own need-deadened sorrow, and wondered if something similar might be useful for soothing Kirlin Security's more distraught clients.
Semma nodded and followed the butler, and Eskalie was able to escape into the well-insulated retiring room. Too close to need to cry, she could only moan like a breeding Gen seeing its offspring departing for the weanling house.
By the time she had regained control, the Academy's children were enjoying their afternoon "free time", during which they were allowed to work individually on their assignments, or to play quietly at a few carefully approved games. Grimly determined, the detective set to work.
She had spoken to all the large social groupings by now, and was left with the odds and ends: pairs, trios, and loners who were not offered friendship by the majority of their peers, due to some perceived social flaw or other lack of status. The detective was forced to work slowly and carefully, because these children were more suspicious of her motives in seeking their company. It took longer to get a true feel for their childish nagers, and then find a plausible reason to mention the thefts. She had not finished when the bell rang to tell the students to dress for supper.
"I'll talk to the remaining students tomorrow," Eskalie assured Rahah, as the children obediently sought their rooms. As the evening meal was more formal, the children were strictly forbidden to speak during it. Instead, they were required to listen quietly as Rahah and the teachers demonstrated appropriate dinner conversation.
The headmistress's formal dinner gown rustled as she shifted in her desk chair and clasped her hands. "I had hoped that you would find the thief quickly," she said.
"Sometimes these things take time," Eskalie explained patiently. "If I don't get anything from the remaining students, I'll question the servants again. Mollins isn't a professional investigator; he might have missed something."
"Well, I suppose you know your business," Rahah admitted. "I will expect you tomorrow, then."
The detective got to her feet, then paused, unable to let the matter ride. "If you don't mind my asking..." she began.
The headmistress waved a tentacle in invitation.
"Did Helka really die in an accident, or did she establish, as the students believe?"
"I don't know," Rahah said quietly. "Furthermore, I'm paying Mollins a substantial salary to make sure that I never find out. He provides me with a written report to pass on to the child's family, and I'm careful never to ask him if it's true. I'd have gone insane years ago, otherwise."
Eskalie was unable to hide her distaste for such deliberate self-delusion.
Stung, the headmistress jumped to her feet and leaned over her desk, glaring at the detective. "Do you think it's easy running a school like this, knowing that a third of the children under my care are doomed?" she demanded. "And it isn't just the problem students who are lost, either: sometimes it's the brightest and best, children who could have made a difference if they'd had a chance. I know better than most that Gens are just Gens, regardless of their former identities. But I'll tell you this, Miz Professional Investigator Morlin," and her nager flared defiance. "I may be a working woman who can't afford charity, and I know the school couldn't get by without the money we get when Mollins sells Gens to the dealers. But I'm glad whenever one of my students' families is willing to pay extra to have their child smuggled across the border if necessary, even though I lose money on it. It helps me live with myself."
"I'm sure it does," a thoroughly chastened Eskalie agreed. "My profuse apologies for the misunderstanding; I had no idea it was such a sensitive subject."
Rahah accepted the attempt at making amends with a nod, and her nager gradually calmed.
Eskalie knew it was none of her business, but like any First Year Sime, she was always curious. "Does Mollins also make the arrangements to send the Gens across the border?"
"Yes," Rahah confirmed. "But don't bother to ask him what really happened to your friend. Taking Gens to the border is against the law, you know, and the school can't afford a scandal. Part of our agreement is that Mollins doesn't talk--not to anyone, for any reason."
"If you believe Mollins is trustworthy, then I won't trouble you further about it," the detective assured her. She performed the half bow of formal leavetaking and retreated in good order, refusing to show how much the older Sime's impassioned defense of deliberate ignorance had shaken her. However, as she reached the door, she couldn't stop herself from turning back to ask one more, highly personal, question.
"Headmistress Rahah, did my parents pay to have me taken to the border, if I'd turned Gen?"
Compassion and understanding brightened the other Sime's nager.
"Yes, my dear, they did."
When Eskalie returned to the inn, she found Amsil waiting impatiently for her in the dining room, sipping occasionally at a glass of tea. Her tentacles were twitching with the restlessness of hard need, and the other customers were staying as far away as possible. As Eskalie paused in the doorway, she saw the serving boy tiptoe up to refill her boss's glass. With the caution bred by experience, he kept the table between them to offer some protection from need-provoked outbursts of temper.
The precaution was wasted. When she zlinned Eskalie, Amsil jumped up, her lips twisted in what would have been a smile under better circumstances, and paced over to consult with her junior partner. "How did it go?" she asked.
"I made a start, but I'm not sure I'm on the right track. I'll tell you about it after your kill. I got a pretty good advance out of Rahah, though." Eskalie patted her plump purse.
"Whoopie!" the older Sime exclaimed, as she zlinned the pouch, expertly assessing the density of the coins. "That's quite a sum. It'll cover this month's rent and taxes, with a little bit left over. Me and Faylee Koons, the Penkeeper here, go way back. She won't charge me much extra for a really good kill, so we'll have enough for a good celebration. We can start at the Open Barrel, maybe go by the Chained Gen, and end our fun at the Red Shiltpron!"
The three establishments mentioned were definitely not the sort of places a well-bred young Sime should be found. Even those who enjoyed slumming usually picked less dangerous surroundings. After all, the game was to enjoy the decadent pleasures of the lower classes, not their risks as well. However, all three were of a slightly better class than the Smuggler's Roost, and therefore presumably safer. If Eskalie wanted to show her boss that she wasn't just another rich snob, she would have to avoid even the appearance of criticizing Amsil's lower-class taste in entertainment.
There's no point in being stupid about it, though, she thought, glancing down at her elegant outfit. These clothes are an open invitation to every lazy, discontented lorsh who blames the rich folks for his inability to earn his Pen fees.
"Why don't you finish your tea, while I go up and change, Amsil?" she suggested. "Then we can go get your kill."
Amsil's friend Faylee Koons was a tiny, vivacious woman. Her white-blond hair was piled in an elegant bun on top of her head, but the ground-in dirt beneath her fingernails was proof that she didn't leave all the unpleasant work to her employees.
Except for Faylee, the Pen's cluttered front office was deserted. There were no Simes waiting in the reception area, and indeed, Eskalie could zlin no other Simes in the building.
"I gave the staff the afternoon off, so that they could go see the flyball match," Faylee explained cheerfully, when the greetings and introductions were completed. "Sommerin has a good chance of beating North Tuckett today, and advancing to the championships. Half the town has killed in the past two days, it seems, so they'll be able to appreciate the game."
She grinned unrepentantly. "Me, I've seen enough flyball to know how the game's played. Besides, it's amazing how much work you can get done when you ain't interrupted every two minutes. There hasn't been anyone come in all afternoon, and now I got my records up to date, ready for the auditor from the tax office." She patted the black ledger on her desk with a proprietary air.
"Now, then," she said, zlinning Amsil with professional expertise. "If I know you, Amsil, you'd probably enjoy something a little special. I happen to have some breeders that's got too old. They're used to being handled, so I don't keep 'em drugged too heavy. A couple of 'em are pretty spirited, though, so I think we can find you something you'd like. Come on back with me now and zlin if they meet your specifications."
Amsil followed her friend towards the office's rear door, her laterals already extended and quivering in anticipation. Her upper lip raised in an impatient snarl as Faylee paused in the doorway long enough to call back over her shoulder, "Why don't you put the kettle on and make some tea, dear? Amsil always was finicky about choosing her kills, so this could take a while."
Eskalie sighed in relief as the door closed, shutting out the constant irritation of Amsil's need. She wandered over to the reception area, where Simes could wait in reasonable comfort until the staff could attend to them. She added a scoop of coal to the fire in the small stove, then checked the battered teakettle. It was almost empty, so she filled it at the tap and set it over the fire to heat. She found a mug that looked reasonably clean, and noted with pleasure that the brand of trin, while not in the same class as the Sommerin Academy's, was at least significantly better than Kirlin Security's usual.
She wandered around the room, waiting for the water to boil, and finally came to a halt in front of the desk. Every inch of the broad surface was cluttered with tax records, receipts for Gen food, Gen registration forms, payroll records, and the other detritus of the Penkeeper's trade.
And I thought the detective business was heavy on the paperwork!
She eyed the black ledger for a moment, her fists clenched as she fought temptation--and lost. Gavvin's hadn't been the only familiar face missing from the Sommerin Academy's student body. How many of them went safely through changeover, and which became Gens instead?
Overcome by a morbid compulsion to know, she opened the ledger and started with the most recent entries, skimming the address column for transactions involving the Sommerin Academy. She had worked backwards to the previous week before she found the first notation; Rahah had claimed her monthly kill. Mollins and the cook had also claimed kills that week. It was three pager further on that Eskalie found the first of the entries she sought.
So Pacca made it, Eskalie thought with interest. I wouldn't have thought it; she was a bit big for her age, and talk about "dumb as a Gen"...
Erik, Meemo, and Yolonda had also made it safely to adulthood, she discovered. And then she found an entry she hadn't been expecting: the record of a purchase from the Sommerin Academy of a newly established Domestic Gen, serial number SDK-345-15. It was described as female, suitable for a Choice Kill, but not for breeding or training as a pet Gen, due to a malformed foot.
Ettsa, Eskalie realized, recognizing the description. I guess her parents didn't pay the extra fee to have her taken to the border. They might even have wanted to get rid of her. If they had, it hadn't taken long. On the opposite page was the record of SDK-345-15's sale to the owner of the city's finest restaurant, with a short note that the Gen was intended as a wedding present for his son.
Not an easy death, if half of what I've heard about that young man is true. Unless the thought of his blushing bride inspired him to rush through his usual preliminaries...
Sickened at the thought, Eskalie closed the ledger, no longer curious to learn the fates of her former acquaintances. I'd rather remember them as they were, she decided. It's kinder for everyone.
She was sipping tea in the waiting area when Faylee returned, her nager strangely subdued. She scribbled an entry in her ledger, blotted it, then closed the book firmly. Picking up the half-filled tea mug on her desk, she added some hot water from the kettle to warm it and sat down opposite Eskalie on one of the comfortable couches.
"Amsil won't be long," she commented, her voice a little rough. "She don't spend much time workin' up a kill one she's finally made her choice, not like some I could mention."
"I know," Eskalie said, zlinning the woman with a polite degree of deference. "Is something the matter? You zlin upset."
"She chose SBF-315-63, just like I thought she would," Faylee explained, staring into her tea. "That Gen's been around here longer than I have, and caused trouble every minute of it. Whelped a healthy one each spring until this one, though, and most of 'em lived."
A single tear trickled down the Penkeeper's left cheek. She wiped it off with one tentacle. "Never thought I'd be sorry to see old 63 go, but after so long, they take on a personality, like a pet dog or something." She looked at the moisture on her tentacle with surprise, then wiped it off on her coveralls. "It's silly to get so sentimental over a Gen," she apologized. "They all have to go sooner or later. What else are Gens good for, anyway?"
By the time Amsil rejoined them, glowing from her kill, Faylee had regained enough composure to tease her friend about her plans for the evening. Amsil took the ribbing good-naturedly, only commenting that it was just as well that Faylee wasn't post also, or the city might never survive.
When Amsil and Eskalie tried to put their plans into effect, however, they encountered an unexpected difficulty. As in most cities, Sommerin's entertainment district was clustered into asmall area not far from the Gen Market. It managed to pack a gaudy assortment of killhouses, bordellos, porstan bars, and shiltpron parlors into two short blocks.
However, the flyball game had ended in a victory for the home team, thanks to some judgments by the referees which were energetically disputed by their opponents. The fans had taken to the streets in force to celebrate--and to continue the debate over the respective merits of the teams (and the referees) with the disappointed visitors from North Tuckett.
The Open Barrel's barrels had been opened, and its furniture smashed to splinters, during a particularly spirited exchange of taunts between the two factions. The Chained Gen's doors were chained closed to prevent a similar riot, with patrons being admitted in ones and twos by a matched set of formidable bouncers. A hastily painted sign made it clear that only those who were residents of Sommerin, and therefore presumably supporters of the home team, were welcome. At the Red Shiltpron, the shiltpron player had long since made his escape, and the patrons were seeing red as they screamed chants lauding their teams, each faction trying to drown the other out. The police were out in force, trying to quell the incipient riot.
"Oh, shen," Amsil said, zlinning the scene with dismay.
"It must have been an interesting game," Eskalie remarked, watching as a discussion between three laborers progressed from shouting to fists.
"Hmpff," the older Sime grumbled, inspecting the crowd once more. She finally shook her head in disgust. "This mess won't clear up for hours, and I'm gettin' thirsty for a good mug of porstan. Tell you what, kid. Let's try that place just outside town, the one we passed coming in."
"Ummm..." Eskalie stammered. She tried to find a way to express her reservations without giving the impression that she thought her boss's taste in entertainment was distinctly lowbrow...even though it was.
Amsil put a companionable hand on the detective's shoulder and steered her back the way they had come. "Don't worry, kid," she said cheerfully. "The place wasn't fancy, but that shiltpron player was good."
When they reached the dilapidated barn on the edge of town, it soon became obvious that the quality of the music had not been sufficient to tempt the sports fans into such a doubtful arena. The scattering of customers who clustered around the scarred tables appeared to be discussing more prosaic subjects such as the unreasonable behavior of their bosses, the skimpiness of their paychecks, and the possibility that the Wild Gens would attack during the summer, allowing those who turned out to fight them a chance at an otherwise unattainable Choice Kill.
The less sociable drinkers slumped at the splinter-laden plank which substituted for a bar, clutching crude earthenware steins of porstan. Eskalie noted with some amusement that the most dedicated member of this faction was Sek, the Sommerin Academy's footman.
Trust him to find the only place in town which has space at the bar, not to mention the cheapest porstan in town. Not that it isn't still overpriced, she concluded, comparing the unpromising, musty odor of a fermentation gone wrong with the list of offerings and prices posted above the bar, complete with pictures for the benefit of the illiterate. Which must be a large portion of their clientele, from the looks of them.
Glancing around at the decor, Eskalie wasn't surprised that the place was so deserted on an evening which had been declared an unofficial town holiday. The renovations to the dilapidated barn had been limited to tearing out most of the stalls, to provide lumber for the tables and bar. Even a few wooden, cobweb bedecked farm tools had been left hanging on the walls, exactly as the building's original owner had left them.
Doesn't smell like they scrubbed the place down, either, Eskalie thought, as the odor of old manure assaulted her nostrils, mixing in nauseating fashion with the scent of unmopped spills on the packed earth floor. A sign above a short hallway by the side of the bar announced that it led to the outhouse; the sewage smell combined with unidentifiable cooking smells from the kitchen. Or maybe a rat had died; by now Eskalie's nose was numbing in self-defense.
The two detectives found themselves an isolated table, one of two next to the raised stage which had been cobbled together at one end of the barn, and settled down to wait for the server to notice them. It was the shiltpron player who arrived first, however, returning from a rest break. They recognized each other immediately.
"Well, if it ain't the heroine of the Genfarm bust! And the big boss of Kirlin Security, as well. What're you two doin' in Sommerin?"
"Zilmor!" Eskalie exclaimed. "I might ask the same question. The last time I saw you, you and your two friends, Mak and Eitan, were transporting stolen Gens for Mirta Dulkar and the Forsts." They had actually managed to take Eskalie prisoner for a few hours during her Genfarm investigation, until they had gotten drunk on the Killer Gen's nager, and it had freed her. "How did you escape prosecution when her crime ring was broken, and the Forsts with it?"
Zilmor shrugged. "The boys and me, we was small fry. But we knew what was goin' on, so they let us turn state's evidence. Gave us a ree-ward, too. Not much, but enough to be a good start on opening our own place." She surveyed the dilapidated building, nager shining with the pride of ownership.
"You've certainly created a...unique...atmosphere," Eskalie remarked, not having the heart to tell the woman that her investment was in immanent danger of collapse. "And an unusual name, too. Why the 'Smuggler's Roost'?"
"The barn used to belong to old Temment's brother, back when the two of them were buying off the Genrunners. Then Mirta Dulkar had them murdered to reduce the competition, and it's been sitting empty ever since, just waiting for some enterprisin' folks like us to come along. But I'd better start playing, and you folks must be thirsty. Mak!" she yelled back at the kitchen. "Get your shedoni-doomed backside out here! We got customers."
As she mounted the three rough steps to the stage and began to tune her shiltpron, her fellow ex-criminal scurried out of the kitchen, hurriedly wiping his soiled hands and tentacles on a stained rag. "What cha havin'?" he asked. Eskalie noted with some amusement that the belligerent toughness which used to characterize his nager was now tempered with a fairly decent imitation of obsequious servility, at least when he remembered to think about it.
Amsil ordered the house porstan, but Eskalie had no real desire to trust herself to the mercy of obviously incompetent amateur brewers. Unfortunately, the menu chalked on the wall didn't seem to include offerings from Sommerin's more experienced masters of the art. She scanned the list, hoping against hope to find something drinkable, and at the very bottom, she found it.
What's a hole like this doing offering a twenty year old reserve red from the Green Acrea Winery? And at a decent price, even if it is ten times more than anything else on the menu. Never mind. What's that old adage about not zlinning too closely any free Gens one might be presented?
"I'll take the wine," she said firmly. "Just bring the bottle and a glass. I'll pour it myself." And that way, I'll be able to make sure the glass is clean.
Zilmor stopped tuning her shiltpron long enough to let out a whoop of joy. "See, Mak, I told ya somebody'd buy the stuff eventually!"
With a sarcastic wave of a tentacle, her partner dismissed her claim of victory in what was obviously a longstanding disagreement. "One bottle in a whole month? We shoulda hired us a kid to help out."
"We do all right," the musician said, a bit defensively. "Or at least we would if you'd stop complainin' and get the ladies their drinks!"
Mak's nager flared at the rebuke, but he started obediently for the leaky kegs stacked behind the bar, bellowing towards the kitchen door for his younger brother. "Eitan! Get down to the cellar and bring up a bottle of the fancy stuff!"
When Amsil's porstan arrived, Eskalie decided that her estimate of the ex-criminals' brewing prowess had been overly optimistic. There was no head worth mentioning, and so even the crude earthenware stein it was served in couldn't hide the fact that it was cloudy. They probably make the stuff with water from the closest stream, not pure stuff from rain barrels. Looks like they didn't bother to filter it, either, judging from the bits of barley hull.
Amsil didn't appear to mind the substandard quality of the offering, draining her mug with gusto and ordering another. Eskalie, still waiting for her wine, settled back to enjoy the music.
Unlike the porstan, Zilmor's playing was anything but amateurish. The music she enticed from the strings of her worn instrument filled the room without overpowering it, coaxing her audience to listen carefully, and whenever she extended her laterals to touch the resonating tines, it sent a shiver of anticipation through the ambient.
Two ballads and a short comic piece later, a cobweb-bespeckled Eitan finally appeared with a bottle and a glass. Like the amateur wine steward that he was, he had carefully scrubbed the bottle until it gleamed, and opened it away from the table. The cork was nowhere to be seen. The glass was designed for water, not wine, but at least it was reasonably clean.
"Sorry it took so long," he apologized, setting her order in front of her. "I coulda sworn I stacked the stuff by the back wall of the root cellar, but it was under the stairs instead. And Zil," he continued, looking up at the musician, "we've gotta get a cat, whether it makes you sneeze or not. It smells like a rat died down there."
This was hardly the sort of remark a waiter should make in front of a customer, but Eskalie was ready to forgive Eitan's ignorance of proper protocol instantly, if he'd actually managed to produce a wine of a quality to match the label. She poured a small sample into the water glass and inspected it, noting the brick red color and the specks of condensed pigment which had been resuspended during the bottle's recent agitation. The water glass didn't have the correct egg shape to concentrate the aroma, but when she swirled it and sniffed, she could identify the strong raspberry smell of top-quality grapes, with overtones of the oak barrels in which it had been aged, and just a touch of butter. There were none of the mold or sulfur smells which would indicate a spoiled wine.
She sipped carefully, evaluating the taste as the liquid spread out over her tongue. Very little sugar, nice balance, good viscosity, and the tannins are down to something reasonable. Finally, she let the wine trickle down her throat, to check the aftertaste, then nodded her approval.
Only then did she notice that half of the customers were staring at her performance in fascination, attracted by the anxiety Eitan had been projecting at having his wares subjected to such a professional evaluation.
"An excellent wine," she affirmed, signally her acceptance of the bottle by filling her glass. She suppressed a smile as Eitan's nager wilted with relief. "The vintage might have come from the cellars of the Forsts themselves."
With a slightly hysterical giggle, Eitan admitted, "It did! We bought a whole case of the stuff when the government auctioned off their estate, after they were executed for Gen theft."
A murmur of discussion broke out among the customers. Some admitted their curiosity as to how such a distinguished vintage would taste. Others maintained that it was the height of folly to pay such a premium price for wine when the house porstan would get them drunk for a fraction of the cost. Even the most curious ones couldn't afford to indulge their thirst for knowledge, however. The debate remained strictly hypothetical, even when Zilmor played a brief hymn of praise to the fruit of the vine by way of encouragement.
When it became obvious that his brief career as a wine steward had come to an end, Eitan sighed and asked if there was anything else he could bring them. Eskalie shook her head, but Amsil ordered a bowl of the stew, eager to wallow in pure sensation after her relief from the deadening effect of need.
Eskalie sat back in her chair (with due respect for the splinters), and tried to concentrate on the excellence of the wine and the music, not the sorry surroundings in which she was forced to partake of them. It wasn't easy, but as the potent vintage started to take effect, she found herself able to ignore the decor and the other customers and simply enjoy the music. Still, although Zilmor shaped the ambient deftly, something seemed to be missing. While the detective was no expert on shiltpron playing, the nageric modulations had seemed to have much more power the last time she had zlinned the woman play.
"Wish there was some Gens here," Amsil said regretfully, sipping her third mug of porstan.
Of course, Eskalie realized. That's what's missing. Frixella at the Golden Gen lacked Zilmor's talent, but on one occasion, a customer had brought in his kill, still groggy from the Pen drugs. To the cheers and suggestions of the other patrons, he had spent over an hour working it into a frenzy of terror, before adjourning to the killroom in the back. The Gen's pain and horror had been magnified by the shiltpron, giving the customers--and the bouncer--an ecstatic high at the time, and a splitting headache on the following morning.
Pain and horror weren't the only Gen emotions which could be used by a skilled shiltpron player. The first time Eskalie had zlinned Zilmor play had been during an impromptu festival the musician and her accomplices had held to celebrate taking Eskalie prisoner. Or perhaps it was her luggage which inspired it: the two bottles of fine wine Tallin the Killer Gen had insisted on stuffing into her saddlebags during their hasty departure. For reasons known only to it, the Killer Gen had joined in the party with enthusiasm, bringing out its silver flute. The ensuing concert, during which shiltpron and Gen had worked in perfect harmony to shape the ambient, had been the stuff of which legends were made.
And how often can one expect to witness a legend? Eskalie scolded herself. Better to be content with what's available, than to waste time wishing for something that you're never going to zlin again. As she reached this laudable conclusion, the waiter returned with Amsil's food.
"Here ya go," he said cheerfully, plunking a bowl down in front of Amsil, and setting a crudely carved wooden spoon beside it. Like most stews, it was filled with unidentifiable lumps, but these lumps somehow managed to be more unidentifiable than average. However, it actually didn't smell too bad--or it wouldn't have, if Eskalie weren't too close to need to be interested in food.
"Mak's a good cook, and stew's his best dish," the chef's younger brother continued, nager glowing with familial pride. "You'll be glad you took a chance on it. There's some as just don't know what they're missin'. Take that fellow over at the end of the bar." He nodded towards the footman, Sek, who had withdrawn a slice of black bread and a lump of hard cheese from the sack at his feet, and was washing an occasional bite down between large gulps of porstan. "He's been comin' in regular for the past two weeks or so, and he hasn't tried our food yet."
"Cheer up," Eskalie advised. "Knowing what I do about him, I'm sure he drinks enough to make up the difference and more."
"True enough," Eitan admitted, and wandered off to care for his other customers.
When Amsil had taken the edge off of her hunger, Eskalie was able to brief her on the day's work. "So I didn't get anywhere today, really, and we'll have to stay another day in the hotel." Need and depression over the loss of her friend magnified the failure into something perilously close to a tragedy.
"You've already eliminated a fair number of suspects, and that's valuable in this type of investigation," her boss pointed out, with post-kill optimism. "Your approach is sound enough, and the servants are the most likely suspects, anyway. You'll find the thief, don't worry." The older Sime took a large gulp of porstan to emphasize her confidence in her firm's junior employee. "Why, there was one time, when Sesfin and I had just opened Kirlin Security, when..."
The door opened, admitting three Simes, with two Gens behind them. Not the drugged, dull-nagered products of the government Pens, either, but alert and responsive as any Prime Kill. As one, every Sime in the room turned to inspect the newcomers, and the congenial ambient shattered with hostility as the blue-green and gray livery of Householding Dar was identified.
"What're them perverts doin' here?" Amsil muttered darkly, forgetting all about her story. "They ought to throw 'em out, them and their fancy Gens."
"Would you like to be the one to try?" Eskalie asked rhetorically. "Even if you managed it, that young one in front, with the white lining on his cape, is their leader, Sectuib Califf. If you hurt him, the rest of them would be after you so fast you'd never have a chance to zlin them coming."
"I know, but I don't have to like it," Amsil growled.
The other patrons seemed to have reached the same unwelcome conclusion, because no one tried to stop the trio as they strolled arrogantly across the floor towards the stage, their two Gens following behind.
Amsil was zlinning the Gens with interest. "Wasn't that younger Gen with the group we saw yesterday?" she asked. "Its field is as low as if it just established, though."
"I expect Califf stripped it," Eskalie answered absently. "After all, the channels are Simes, too. Even if they can make themselves zlin like Gens, they have to get the selyn for their perversions from somewhere." Even knowing the cause, it was disconcerting to zlin a nager so weak on an obviously mature and healthy Gen.
It was the second Gen which had caught Eskalie's attention, however, and which made her very glad that the other patrons had decided not to cause trouble. It was considerably older than its fellow, with a streak of gray running through its brown hair which gave it an absurdly distinguished look. Its field, too, was less high than the last time she'd zlinned it, but it still outshone any of the Prime Kills she'd zlinned for sale at the Tormin Gen Market. Its nager was distinctive: a haze of brilliant fog with a hint of blazing sun beneath. With a chill of fear, Eskalie recognized Tallin the Killer Gen, looking as harmless as it had just before it had crushed Yosum Forst's laterals.
Could Califf control it, if someone gets the bright idea of running the perverts off?
Tallin was an unusually well-trained Gen. During their journey to the Forst Genfarm, it had done absolutely nothing to lead her to suspect that it was anything but the pampered Pet Gen she had been told it was: a fashionable toy for the wealthy. In a blissful ignorance of its true nature which still made her break out into a cold sweat, she had handled Tallin frequently, and encountered no protest or disobedience.
However, once at the Genfarm, the creature had proceeded to run amok. It had used the lockpicks hidden in its flute case to let itself out of the cage in Eskalie's guest room, then casually entered the network of secret passages which riddled the mansion and gone exploring. Even before it slaughtered Yosum Forst, it had cold-cocked one of the Genfarm's employees who had discovered Eskalie pillaging his boss's office, and then deliberately moved the man while he was still unconscious, subjecting him to the horrors of psychospatial disorientation.
The Gen had never offered to attack Eskalie personally, but she was under no illusions that it was a harmless pet. She didn't want to zlin the carnage if the Killer Gen decided that any of the customers were a threat to it or its owners. So, the detective carefully ignored the Householders when Califf selected the table next to her and Amsil and signaled for his followers to seat themselves. The channel had chosen to zlin like a Sime today, forgoing his usual weird imitation-Gen effect. Strangely enough, his Sime nager wasn't much more convincing than his Gen one.
At least the pervert has the courtesy to pretend he doesn't know me. It would cause her no end of trouble if word got around that she had sought refuge within Dar's walls, however briefly and unwillingly.
Tallin and its less spectacular fellow Gen took seats at the table without prompting, and looked around with interest. They were alert and undrugged, but there was no fear in their nagers.
As if unaware of the staring eyes, Sectuib Califf glanced over the crude menu, then turned to Eitan, who was approaching uncertainly, tentacles wringing with distress as he debated whether or not to ask the perverts to leave. "We would like two bottles of the wine, please, and five glasses." The words were polite, but said with an unconscious air of authority which sent Eitan scurrying for the cellar, objections forgotten.
Couldn't have done it better myself.
About halfway across the floor, it finally registered with Eitan that he had taken orders from a pervert. He hesitated, then apparently decided that the sale of two more bottles of the expensive wine would more than compensate for the damage to the shiltpron parlor's nonexistent reputation. Shrugging, he continued on his way to collect their order.
When the other customers observed that the perverts were actually going to be served, indignation flooded the ambient. Two women got up and left, making no effort to hide their disgust. However, by this time, Eskalie and Amsil weren't the only customers present who had started out with plans to patronize the more elite facilities in the center of town. Those present were well aware that the Smuggler's Roost was the only place they were likely to be able to get a mug of porstan that evening without having the police zlinning them, and so they stayed.
Zilmor began to play a soothing melody, and gradually people stopped staring and began to return to their drinks and conversations. When she finished her song, the musician leaned forward on her stool and asked quietly, "Whatever possessed you to come in here?"
To Eskalie's astonishment, the question was addressed to Tallin, not Sectuib Califf, and it was the Gen which provided the answer. "We had business on this side of town. When we tried to return home, we discovered that we were attracting more than the usual amount of attention. That flyball game must have been unusually interesting. It seemed prudent to find an out-of-the-way spot and wait for things to calm down."
Zilmor shrugged. "Well, I hope you don't regret it." Settling her shiltpron more comfortably against her shoulder, she began to play once more.
Amsil leaned over and snickered in Eskalie's ear. "Trust a pervert to let a Gen speak for him!"
Eitan brought the wine and glasses, more promptly than he had served Eskalie, which earned him a carefully generous tip from Califf. Amsil wasn't the only who to let out a deliciously scandalized gasp when the pervert promptly served not only his friends, but the Gens as well.
Eskalie was a bit concerned about what the combination of wine and music would do to the Gens' nagers. However, Califf was somehow managing to blur Tallin's nager, keeping it out of synch with Zilmor's modulations, and the other Gen was too lowfield to affect the ambient much.
Just when Eskalie had decided that it was safe to go back to enjoying her own glass of wine, the door was shoved open once more, and a dozen ill-kempt, scarecrow thin figures pushed through, shouting for drinks. From the dirt ingrained in their skin and clothing, these were temporary farmhands from the squalid camp on the other side of the hill. They had just finished a long, hot day in the fields, and now that the sun had set, they were spoiling for entertainment: the more violent, the better.
They noticed the Gens immediately, of course. It didn't take them more than a second or two longer to take in the livery worn by the three Simes at the table. They might have been able to identify the trio as Householders a bit faster if they'd been wearing signs.
Or maybe not. I doubt any of those losers are literate.
Being from out of town, they probably didn't know the name of the local House--or that Dar specialized in the martial arts. They saw only that they outnumbered their potential victims by four to one, and decided that it was safe to have a little fun.
"Hey, perverts," a skeletally thin man called. "I hear ya prefer fake Sime-kills, instead of killin' Gens like a normal person. Since you're not plannin' to use those fancy Gens you got, why don'cha hand 'em over? We'll show ya how a real Sime goes about appreciatin' a nager like that."
"Yeah!" the woman next to him agreed. "Beat 'em a bit, dance 'em around, and we can all have a grand time!"
Califf hesitated, searching for a way to head off the trouble he could zlin coming. There was no question that he and his friends could overcome the dozen field hands, especially with the aid of the two highly trained Gens. However, if they fought, some of them were going to get hurt--and at four to one odds, they couldn't afford to pull their punches. It was very likely that at least some of their opponents would be permanently maimed, or even murdered. Field hands were cheap and plentiful, so chances were good that they wouldn't be prosecuted. However, the bad publicity would make Dar's situation, and that of the other Householdings, that much more precarious.
Before the young channel could find a suitably nonprovoking response, Zilmor spoke up.
"I got a better idea," she announced, pointing to Tallin. "You shouldn't waste a Gen like that dancin' it around down there, where only a few folks at a time can enjoy it properly. Get it up here, and I'll show you some effects you can't zlin downtown, if ya know what I mean." She winked broadly, and ran her fingers over the strings. When one lateral extended to touch the resonating tine, sending a suggestive thrill through the ambient, the field hands cheered her proposal.
Califf opened his mouth to protest, but the shiltpron player leaned forward and snarled softly, "I don't want to hear any objections, kid. We ain't had no one hurt in a brawl here yet, at least not worse than bruises, and I aim to keep it that way. If those idiots tear the place apart, we can't afford to start over. I can't baby them into a good mood by myself, so I'm borrowin' your Gen for a while, and that's that. You owe me one, and I'm calling in the debt."
Califf's reluctance was easy to zlin, but so was the interest Zilmor's suggestion had sparked among the assembled Simes, the locals as well as the field hands. They were eager to zlin something new, and they wouldn't take "no" for an answer.
"Just be careful, Father," the young channel warned.
The Gen gave its owner's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, then topped off its wine glass and made its way to the steps leading up to the stage.
"Watch out for splinters, Pet," Zilmor advised, as one of the rickety steps wobbled under its considerable mass, causing it to grab for the rough hand rail. "Hey, Eitan, get another stool for the Gen!"
Most of the Simes had obviously expected her to start beating Tallin, to provoke pain and fear which could then be magnified to delicious heights by the shiltpron. The ambient dissolved into confusion as the stool was brought by a hurrying Eitan. The waiter had a very good idea what his colleague intended, and was openly displaying his eagerness.
Tallin took the stool from him and without instructions placed it at the optimum position with respect to Zilmor, where the Gen could see her easily and its nager could best be modulated by her shiltpron.
Amsil leaned over and muttered, "How'd it know to sit there, when it can't zlin?"
"Practice," the younger detective said, watching Tallin open the wooden case it habitually carried at its belt. A murmur of understanding and anticipation broke out as the Gen withdrew the sections of a silver flute and began to assemble them.
Does Tallin still carry a set of lockpicks in there as well? Eskalie wondered. She wasn't sure how she felt about having the opportunity to zlin the Gen play duets with Zilmor again. The part of her that was Sime, that knew she was down to three day's supply of selyn and was searching for the next kill, wanted it badly. It craved the opportunity to drown in that incredible nager, until she sank through the fog to the burning core beneath. The more sane half of her was well aware of how addictive that experience might be, and how easily she might find herself fixed on a Gen she couldn't kill.
Couldn't kill even if I owned it, after what it did to Yosum.
Eskalie knew that the safest thing to do was to make her excuses and leave. Still, there were other considerations. She couldn't afford to alienate her boss by abandoning her, or by making her leave when she was so eager to remain. There was no explanation she could offer which wouldn't be understood as a condemnation of Amsil's lower-class taste in entertainment.
In the end, that was enough to keep Eskalie in her seat as Zilmor tuned the shiltpron to Tallin's flute. Then the musician started to play a cheerful song about a little bird, embroidered with gay arpeggios. Tallin joined in on the chorus, silvery notes darting up and down the scale. The Gen's foggy nager brightened with mirth, Zilmor touched her laterals to the resonating prongs to modulate the emotion, and their audience gasped with delight.
Two months before, Zilmor had been experimenting, trying to figure out how to use the power that Tallin offered so freely, and unable to predict quite what the Gen's nager was going to do. After all, like any professional shiltpron player, she was accustomed to playing alongside Gens which were being tortured, and which thus understandably lacked an interest in her music. However, unlike most Gens unfortunate enough to end up in a shiltpron parlor, Tallin actually liked music, and when the Gen concentrated on playing its flute, its nager fluctuated in counterpoint to the notes it played.
It was obvious that Zilmor had been devoting considerable thought to the artistic problem of a willing Gen musician in the intervening months, and she'd come up with some interesting solutions. Instead of trying to take the Gen's powerful nager and twist it into something appropriate for the song, she used a much lighter touch, reinforcing Tallin's own efforts instead of overriding them, surrounding each individual member of the audience with the joy of infinite selyn production.
It was much more spectacular than her first attempt.
Eskalie was lost in sensation, no longer able even to think about leaving. For almost five minutes, she soared in the total freedom of the sky, with no more thought for need than a real bird.
When the song ended, there was a breathless pause, and then cheers erupted. Eskalie glanced up to check the structural integrity of the rafters, fearing that the impact of so many decibels would give a new meaning to the phrase "bring down the house." The two musicians grinned at each other, then swung into a ballad as smoothly as if they had been performing together for years.
Zilmor and Tallin played for almost two hours, working their way through a medley of traditional songs which stressed natural beauty, family, laughter, and good times. No one left, even to visit the toilet, for fear of missing something. By the time Tallin tired, and the Gen's precise nageric control began to fray around the edges, even the field hands were smiling, no longer in the mood to pick a fight with anyone, not even Householders.
After one final tune, a silly nonsense song popular with children, which listed the improbable objects Peetir the Packrat stored in his hole behind the wall, Zilmor set down her shiltpron and stretched her cramping shoulders. "That's all for tonight, folks," she announced regretfully. "I'm worn out, and the Gen's about played its fingers off." There were good-natured groans of protest, but no one took offense as Tallin began taking the flute apart, carefully cleaning each of the sections before returning them to its wooden case.
"Get a bowl of stew for Pet, here," the shiltpron player ordered Eitan, patting Tallin affectionately on one arm as it closed the lid of its case. "And bring a slice of that blueberry pie as well. The Gen's earned it!"
This suggestion evoked a hearty cheer from the audience, which turned to amused applause as the Gen bowed, with all the aplomb of a Territory-renowned performer after a concert at the Capitol. A babble of voices broke out as people began discussing what they had just witnessed.
"That was incredible," Amsil said. The older detective was grinning ear to ear as she finished her latest mug of porstan. She was obviously in love with the whole world, wildly drunk and not caring.
Eskalie nodded in agreement. She had had only two small servings or her wine, which would not ordinarily have affected her. But I wouldn't be sober after that concert even if I'd been drinking water. Her head was spinning, although at least the lighter emotions the musicians had been using had prevented her from raising intil. Still, she expected that she would have a considerable hangover in the morning.
The room emptied as most of the men went outside to relieve their bladders against any tree, bush, or wall which would stand still for such treatment. The women gave them envious glances as the line for the building's one lavatory stretched down the short side hall, past the kitchen, and into the main room.
Amsil returned from her pilgrimage radiating contentment, and settled back with an indulgent smile to watch Tallin eat. The Gen had quickly consumed the generous meal Eitan had produced, with the concentration only a hungry Gen could bring to the exercise. It was now disposing of a fat piece of blueberry pie with equal efficiency.
Eskalie had never liked standing in line, so she waited until the last stragglers were back before heading down the hall. The first door she tried opened on a set of rickety stairs leading down to the root cellar. The second yielded her goal, now somewhat the worse for wear, thanks to the earlier patrons. Holding her nose with two tentacles, Eskalie used it anyway.
As she left the lavatory, she heard a door slam and zlinned a nager in the hall: Sek the footman, staggering back towards the bar. While that direction of travel was only to be expected, it did beg the question of why he had left it in the first place.
It couldn't have been the obvious: I was using the facilities.
The only other door in the hallway was that leading to the root cellar. And what is there to interest a drunken lorsh like Sek down there?
For a moment, the detective wrestled with her conscience, which told her in no uncertain terms to mind her own business. But anything involving the Sommerin Academy or its staff is my business, while I'm investigating the thefts.
Too drunk to worry about the consequences, Eskalie indulged her curiosity by opening the door and peering down the stairs. Eitan had been right: there was a definite carrion odor mixed with the smell of mildew, outhouse, and fermentations gone wrong.
The smell almost deterred the detective from further explorations, but Sek, for all his faults, was as fastidious as any proper servant. He wouldn't go into a smell like that without a reason.
Curious, Eskalie fetched the smoking oil lantern from the lavatory and made her way down the unstable stairs. There were a half dozen porstan barrels stacked in the center of the floor, liquid seeping from their bungs to feed the mold. That, the detective had been expecting.
Years ago, someone had tried to make an office of the room. There was an old desk with a few scraps of paper shoved against the right wall, and a calendar ten years out of date pinned above it. Along the far wall, rough wooden bookshelves were attached directly to the bedrock. Those of the most convenient height had been cleared to free space for a sad collection of limp and rotting vegetables, but the others still held an assortment of musty, decaying volumes.
Someone had made a token attempt to sweep the floor, with the help of a handful of leafy branches tied to a stick. The would-be janitor still had much to learn about his craft: the dust was thick enough to show footprints around the edges of the room.
Eskalie blinked, then looked again. However, it was still there, in the dust which had collected under the bookshelves: a footprint. Or rather, half a footprint.
A dreadful possibility occurred to Eskalie. She tried to tell herself that it was just imagination fueled by intoxication, but she was unable to find any evidence which didn't fit. She deposited the lantern on the nearest barrel and marched back up the stairs. Amsil looked at her drunkenly, her nager reflecting vague surprise as her younger colleague waved her back to her seat and strode past their table to that occupied by the perverts. Eskalie proceeded to give Califf's cape a commanding tug, and when she had the channel's undivided attention, she nodded at Tallin and announced, "I'm sorry, but I've got to borrow your Gen. Now. It's urgent."
Califf blinked, disconcerted by the request. "You're not in such hard need as that..." he started to object, then broke off as he zlinned Eskalie's immediate disgust. Tallin looked up, curiosity momentarily overcoming the lure of blueberry pie, and Eskalie tried not to flinch as the Killer Gen's attention focused on her.
"If you owe Zilmor," she said, forcing he voice to remain firm, "you owe me double, and you know it." She felt the implied threat register. If she told the authorities how Yosum had died, they would confiscate and destroy every Gen Dar owned. It as the only way to make sure that none would survive to teach the trick to other Gens. Dar would be paid for the loss, but Eskalie doubted that Califf would find that an acceptable substitute.
"I don't give in to blackmail," the channel said stubbornly.
"Look," the detective coaxed, "I'm not going to damage Tallin, or even leave the building. I just require the Gen's talent for finding what's hidden. I promise, it'll only take a few minutes...half an hour, tops. You can even come along, if you don't trust me with your property. Please, I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."
Califf sighed, zlinning her sincerity and Tallin's avid curiosity, then raised his hands in surrender. "All right," he consented. "I can see that neither of you will give me any peace until I agree. But I'm coming along."
"That's fine with me," Eskalie said, with poorly disguised relief. She had not been looking forward to handling the unpredictable Gen on her own, without its owner's presence to make it behave.
She led the way across the room, with Califf and Tallin close behind. (Tallin, with typical Gen greed, had taken the time to consume the last bite of its pie, first.) Zilmor, who had been eavesdropping avidly as she sat on the stage's stairs and sipped a mug of porstan, brought up the rear, radiating curiosity.
Eskalie led the way carefully down the unstable staircase, zlinning carefully to make sure that it could hold the extra weight. When she reached the bottom, she pointed towards the bookcase.
"Somewhere along that wall, there's got to be a door to a hidden room," she instructed the Gen. "An old smuggler's hole. Find it."
Tallin raised one eyebrow, then set to work. The Gen inspected the floor first, kneeling to get a better view. Then it went over the wall and its shelves, inch by inch. By the time it was finished, Zilmor was bouncing up and down on her toes like a rubber ball, and even Califf was zlinning just a bit impatient.
"Did you know you have a complete set of Ausstin's novels here?" Tallin asked the musician conversationally. "Including some of his early works. There's a good selection of Dammin's essays, too, although some of them have been badly damaged by the mildew."
"What about the door?" Eskalie reminded it, hoping that she hadn't made an utter fool of herself in front of the pervert.
"Oh, that." The Gen reached casually out and removed a heavy volume, revealing a handle. Setting the book carefully aside, Tallin pulled the lever, and the middle section of the bookcase swung backwards an inch. Eskalie stepped forward to add her augmented strength to the Gen's muscles, and the panel slowly creaked open, revealing a tunnel leading into the side of the hill.
The detective gagged at the combined odors of carrion and outhouse which wafted from the opening, but gamely started down the tunnel. "Bring the lantern," she instructed Califf, as Tallin followed at her heels.
The walls were packed earth, shored up by heavy wooden beams at intervals. It zlinned like a professional job, and Eskalie wondered if there had once been a mine here. Or maybe that old smuggler Temment found some out-of-work miners to hire. With a low-priced supply of Gens available, it wouldn't have taken an experienced crew long to bore through the soft earth.
The tunnel ended in a crude wooden door, so badly hung that it would no longer close completely. Around the edges, the detective could barely zlin a Gen nager. Grinning with feral delight at having her deductions proved correct, she grabbed the edge of the door and dragged it open, augmenting slightly to manage the weight.
A wave of Gen panic washed over Eskalie, carried on a warm, ripely pulsing nager. As close to need as she was, she would have been attracted under the best of circumstances. With her head still spinning from the shiltpron and augmentation, she had no defenses at all against the sharp spike of intil which swept over her. Her laterals extended, drinking in the delicious sensation.
Tallin focused on her, the foggy nager obscuring the fear without triggering the instinctive aggression that an interfering Sime nager would have. Embarrassed at being caught in such an undignified public display of need, the detective quickly forced her laterals back into their sheaths where they belonged and stepped through the door.
It was a small room, obviously intended as a temporary holding cell for Wild Gens. At intervals around the walls heavy logs had been driven into the packed earth. Many still had heavy metal staples driven into them, with rusted chains dangling.
Califf's lantern also revealed the source of the carrion smell: the bloated corpse of a young male Gen, lying in a disjointed heap on the floor. The wisps of beard on the Gen's chin proclaimed that it had established only shortly before it was killed, and the decay hadn't yet progressed far enough to render the features unrecognizable. Gavvin Reston.
Around the corpse's neck was a traveling collar, of the sort issued by most Pens. It was lightweight enough not to cause galls, and could be easily opened by any Sime, although not by a Gen or child. The tags dangling from it suggested that the Gen's owner had originally planned to transport it, before more immediate concerns interfered.
Chained to the far wall, not far from another crude door leading further into the hill, was a living Gen. Despite the poor light and the terror distorting its face, it was clearly recognizable as Helka Arslan.
"Eskalie!" the Gen cried, projecting such a dizzying mixture of fear, hope, and enduring shame that the detective staggered under its impact.
The detective stared at her former friend in horror. Helka was to be taken to the border and released, if she established. What is she doing in a place like this?
"Oh, shen," Zilmor said in disgust, as she peered over their shoulders. "Can't folks get rid of their own garbage before it makes a mess? I'll hafta get Eitan down here to bury the thing, or we'll have rats all over the kitchen. The live one oughta be worth something, though."
"Excuse me," the detective said, bracing herself as Helka's nager flared deliciously once more. "I'm afraid that I have the prior claim, since I deduced the presence of this secret Pen. However, if you wish to dispute that, you are welcome to bring the matter before the magistrate."
The musician gave Eskalie a sour look, well aware that the courts were unlikely to award title of a stray Gen claimed by a Morlin to the ex-criminal part owner of a lower-class shiltpron parlor. Grumbling under her breath about the unfairness of life, she conceded the detective's prior right with a semi-obscene gesture involving all four tentacles of her left hand.
When the detective tried to claim her prize, though, the young Gen took one look at the swollen ronaplin glands on her arms and started screaming, hysterically tugging at the chain attached to its collar. This was one of the heavy models used for restraining dangerous Prime Kills, which could be opened only with a key. The inside surface was studded with barbs to compel obedience. Gen pain was added to the fear. The combination threw Eskalie hyperconscious again, and only the knowledge that the Gen was--or had been--her best friend kept her from killing it then and there.
Tallin stepped between them, catching the flailing hands and murmuring soft reassurances. The older Gen's nager was much more powerful than Helka's, and the assembled Simes breathed a collective sigh of relief as the ambient calmed.
Shen, thought Eskalie, as her tentacles knotted in frustration. How can I show Semma how badly her parents were cheated, if I don't dare get near the evidence?
Even without the ability to zlin, Helka was succumbing to Tallin's seductive influence almost as easily as a Sime. When the frantic struggles had ceased, the older Gen opened its wooden flute case and removed a worn set of lock picks. Less than a minute later, the barbed collar fell to the ground. Tallin put the lock picks carefully back in the flute case, then surrounded the trembling Helka with a comforting hug.
The musician shook her had in amazement. "So that's how you managed to get Eskalie here free, when we used your collar on her that time. Pretty sneaky, Pet."
The older Gen shook its head. "Actually, that time I happened to be carrying a spare key," it admitted.
Zilmor laughed, once more restored to good humor. "Next time, we'll search you first."
It wasn't long before Helka's sobs quieted and the Gen raised a tear-streaked face from Tallin's shoulder. "Eskalie, is it really you?"
The detective nodded. "Yes."
Her former friend gave a short, unnaturally loud chuckle. "Gavvin said that he had too much luck to be sold to Tormin's torture palaces. I thought I'd lost my luck entirely." It looked towards their former classmate's bloated corpse. "Well, he wasn't sold, but he's still dead. And me..." A note of dull resignation entered the Gen's ripe nager as its gaze settled on Eskalie's swollen ronaplin glands. "I suppose I'd rather be killed by a former friend than a stranger. You won't torture me too much first, will you?"
Eskalie's tentacles flailed with shocked disbelief, that even as a Gen, Helka would believe such a thing of her. Killing Gens which one had known as children wasn't quite the sort of unforgivable perversion that the Householders indulged in, but it was certainly frowned upon in polite society. And torture implied that the Sime in question lacked the resources to buy a suitably spirited kill.
"Stop that!" she demanded, glaring at what had been her friend. "I'm not going to kill you!"
The young Gen's fragile composure threatened to disintegrate in a combination of hope and disbelief. It looked up at Tallin for confirmation, and its nager only showed acceptance when the other Gen nodded its own assent.
Eskalie was surprised at how much that rejection hurt. We were best friends for years, and now Helka's only willing to take my word if it's confirmed by another Gen. On the other hand, she realized, I don't suppose our friendship has much future, under the circumstances.
Zilmor gave her a sympathetic look. "It's just a Gen," she said kindly. "You can't expect it to act like a person." The musician zlinned Helka once more, lingeringly, and made her way back down the tunnel.
Stung by the pity openly displayed in Zilmor's nager, Eskalie pulled herself together as best she could and turned to Sectuib Califf. "Thank you very much for the loan of your Gen. If I might beg your indulgence in one further matter?"
Califf's nager showed a hint of wariness.
"Relax," Eskalie advised, not bothering to disguise her amusement. "I don't want to borrow your Gen again. Actually, I was thinking more of loaning you mine."
"What?" The channel's confusion and growing alarm were mimicked perfectly by Helka's nager.
She indicated her Gen with a tentacle. "Helka's field is as ripe and ready as they come, and I haven't had a real Choice Kill since my changeover."
The Gen's nager flared at this admission, and Eskalie braced herself against it. Then Califf's nager twisted weirdly, somehow grabbing Tallin's calm field and using it to reshape the ambient. Suddenly, Eskalie found herself surrounded by a bubble of nageric calm. Her perception of the other three nagers in the room was attenuated, as if she were zlinning them through an insulating panel. It was a very strange effect, but at least her head was clearer without Helka's roiling emotions added to her own.
"The Gen's too spooked to travel with, and I'm too close to need," she continued. "It'll force me into attacking it in five minutes, if something isn't done."
Califf's nager shifted again, becoming even more Genlike. The insulating effect between her and the two Gens thickened, but he himself seemed much closer. Somehow, the channel managed to incorporate elements of Helka's grinding anxiety, and Tallin's complex seductiveness, into his projection. The combination was as interesting as the invitation was obvious.
In your dreams, pervert.
"So, what I want you to do," she continued, reprimanding him with a sharp glance, "is to lower Helka's field for me. You can keep the selyn for your trouble; I'm sure you have members who would appreciate it."
Startled, Califf dropped his fancy field control, just as Helka flared raw terror. Eskalie doubled over as she fought to prevent herself from taking the Gen right then and there. It's only intil, she reminded herself desperately. I've got days yet before I'd come close to attrition.
It felt like attrition, though, and she had come much too close to the real thing two months before. She gasped with relief as Tallin stepped firmly between Helka and the two Simes, its calmer nager blocking much of the shrieking temptation. A moment later, Califf recovered, and the protective insulation was back.
"I believe I could accommodate your request," he said, with a belated attempt at a businesslike attitude. As Helka shrank back against the wall like a trapped animal, he turned his attention on the Gen. "That is, if Miz Arslan wishes me to do so."
"The Gen?" Eskalie asked, in honest confusion. "What does its opinion matter? It's my property."
"True, according to our current laws," Califf agreed, his distaste for the status quo clear to zlin. "However," he continued, with the firm conviction of a fanatic, "I am not your property, and I won't lay a tentacle on Miz Arslan without her consent."
The repeated use of the honorific seemed to calm Helka, even though the Gen no longer had the right to the Arslan name, strictly speaking. The wide brown eyes searched the channel's calm face, judging the truth of his statement as best they could. Gradually, the jangling anxiety faded.
"Miz Morlin has a point, though," Califf told the Gen, when it had calmed enough to listen. "Your field is very high. As a Gen, you have the power to make her attack you, even against her own wishes, and you haven't yet learned not to use it."
Eskalie politely refrained from snickering at this strange definition of Gens as powerful, when everybody knew that Simes were faster and stronger. After all, it really wasn't surprising that the Householder, sired by a Gen, had such a backwards view of things.
"You're also a walking temptation to any thief on the road, and the Border Patrol and Licensed Raiders will be able to spot you easily," Califf continued, his calm, soothing voice a strange contrast to his words. "You'd be much safer if I took your field down, and I could do it without hurting you at all. However, if that's not what you want, I'm sure Miz Morlin will do her best to prevent an accident, anyway."
Helka's nager flickered as the Gen considered the channel's advice, hope warring with fear in a combination which would have been nauseating to Eskalie if Califf hadn't been shielding her from the worst of it. One of the young Gen's hands lifted to its neck, tracing one of the cuts made by the collar barbs. It shuddered, then the flickering nager calmed as Helka reached a decision.
Although she'd had no intention of letting Califf actually beat her Gen, the detective had taken it for granted that he would have to overcome a certain amount of vigorous resistance on Helka's part before he could act on her request. It was only to be expected of a Gen being handled by a strange Sime in such a way, particularly with Gavvin's reeking body lying underfoot to remind it of the usual outcome of such contact. If asked, Eskalie would have laughed at the very idea that Califf could persuade a strange Gen to actually agree to let him take its selyn.
As a result, she was completely unprepared when Helka said, "All right. You can do it."
A wave of pure Sime jealousy caught the detective by surprise, as her Gen offered itself to another. Shen, she thought, as she clung to the door of the secret Pen to keep herself from attacking Califf and reclaiming her property, I must be half fixed on it.
Califf shot an inquiring look in her direction, but she signaled for him to continue with one tentacle. "Go on. Just make sure that the Gen's in condition to travel when you're done with it."
The pervert winked insolently, his nager brimming with politely contained amusement, and said, "I think I can promise you that much."
With a ragged courage which was a pale shadow of the boldness Eskalie remembered from their childhood, Helka took a step or two towards the channel. Then Gen hesitated then, unwilling to close the last few feet. Its attention was so focused on the channel that Eskalie might just as well not have existed.
Califf smiled gently at Helka, then began explaining what he was going to do in more detail than the detective really cared to know. As he talked, he leaned back against the wall and retracted his tentacles to appear less threatening. Eskalie could zlin how closely the channel's attention was focused on the Gen's nager, but her former friend, unable to perceive the ambient, was responding to the illusion of harmlessness and casual disinterest.
When Helka's apprehension had faded to numbed resignation, Califf signaled to his own Gen, which took Helka's hands and joined them to his own. Slowly, his handling tentacles emerged from their sheathes to wrap around Gen arms. His laterals followed a moment later. It was all done with great care to avoid triggering the normal Gen escape reflex, which made the kill so appetizing. If the Householders are raised to think that that's what stripping a Gen is like, no wonder they prefer their perversion.
Eskalie couldn't bear to zlin any more. By an act of will, she forced herself hypoconscious and fled back down the tunnel. As she stumbled out into the root cellar, she discovered just how much she had been depending on Califf and his Gen for support. The earth of the root cellar walls was an excellent insulator, as were the thick beams above. Only the door at the top of the stairs provided a temporary glimpse of life, as a drunk stumbled down the hall. Then the woman stepped into the facilities, and her nager disappeared behind its door. Eskalie's own depleted field was now the only spark of life she could zlin. When that rapidly-diminishing supply of selyn was gone, she would die.
It's only intil, she told herself, her tentacles desperately plucking at a moldy barrel as she fought to keep herself from hunting mode. She still had three days until she even hit hard need, and under normal circumstances she wouldn't even think about claiming her kill so soon. However, her own Gen was lowfield by now, and would not be available for her. As for the Dar Gen upstairs...
Tallin might not be the only one they've taught to kill.
As if the thought of bad luck had the power to invoke it, she zlinned an all too familiar foggy nager coming down the tunnel...unaccompanied by its owner. She cast a panicked look at the still-open secret door. She could get it closed before the Gen reached it, of course. It wouldn't even require much augmentation. Unfortunately, such an action would be sure to invoke the creature's infernal curiosity, and what it could unlock once, it would again.
She debated fleeing up the stairs, and seeking refuge back in the bar. However, she couldn't bear to parade her premature intil in front of the crowd, as if she had no more self-control than the field hands who patronized the place. Instead, she sought the shadows under the stairs, sitting on the old wine case to make herself smaller.
Maybe if I hold very still, the Gen won't notice me, Eskalie told herself optimistically, just as Tallin paused in the doorway. Her heart started racing as the Gen's attention flickered around the cellar, then focused directly on her inadequate hiding place. Maybe it's gotten hungry again, and it won't bother investigating, she speculated. But the powerful nager wasn't broadcasting hunger, and it started into the room, pulsing with a mixture of curiosity and concern.
"Eskalie, are you all right?" it asked. The Gen spoke in the authoritative tone of someone who had the right to an answer. It was distinctly odd, coming from a Gen, even one as formidable as Tallin.
Maybe there'll be an earthquake in the next two seconds? the detective hoped forlornly, grasping at straws. But the earth remained firmly rooted beneath her chair...and the dangerous Gen's feet.
Which were heading directly for her hiding place.
"You might as well answer, because I already know where you are," it said, radiating mild exasperation as it perched casually on the closest of the porstan barrels, in front of her and slightly to the right.
Measuring the distances carefully, Eskalie concluded that by augmenting only slightly, she could get past the Gen to the left, circle the cellar close to the wall, and escape up the stairs before the Gen could catch her. Unfortunately, Tallin wouldn't have to catch her. Augmentation tended to startle Gens, and high-intil as she was, any startle reflex carried on a nager that strong would send Eskalie helplessly into an attack. Suicide had never appealed to the detective.
She wrapped her arms protectively around herself, hoping that the creature would simply choose to leave.
Instead, it leaned back and inspected her, its foggy nager penetrating her own. "Is there some rule in the detective's manual that says you have to be on the ragged edge all the time?" it asked, when it had finished assessing her condition.
"It's just intil," she said sullenly. "I'll live."
"Yes, but will the people you pass on the street?" The Gen winked. "You'll be scaring little old ladies into heart attacks if you keep running around like that. Let me help you." The fog started to evaporate, uncovering the brilliant core of its nager, as it leaned towards her.
"No!" Eskalie yelped, shrinking back on her crate. The closeness of so much selyn made it a torture to hold herself apart from the life it represented, and she wasn't sure how long she could stand it before her control snapped. She glanced frantically towards the tunnel entrance, struggling to zlin it properly through the interference of the Gen's overwhelming nager. There was no sign of Califf.
Funny, there's always a pervert around when you don't want one.
She zlinned the hall upstairs, hoping to attract the attention of anyone, Householder or not. In the past, the Killer Gen had shown some reluctance to display its more unusual talents in front of witnesses. However, the hall was bare of life.
"Oh," Tallin said, its tone bespeaking sudden understanding. "Of course." The shielding fog returned, to the detective's relief, once more obscuring the fire beneath as the Gen abandoned its seat on the desk and started up the stairs. For one ecstatic moment, Eskalie thought it had decided to leave her in peace, after all.
Then it closed the door at the top, extinguishing all perception of the hallway...and also any chance that a passing reveler in search of the necessary could zlin that she required rescuing. It wedged the door with a piece of scrap lumber, then turned to her with what was no doubt intended as a reassuring smile, its nager radiating calm confidence.
"There," it announced, as it strolled back down the stairs. "No one will disturb us now. Why don't you just sit back and relax for a few minutes, while I see what I can do to lower your intil factor?" The fog lightened again as one overlarge Gen hand reached towards her.
"Stay away from me!" Eskalie commanded, flinching away from the deadly appendage. Her voice sounded more shrill and desperate than authoritative, even to her ears, and she was not surprised when the Killer Gen ignored her instructions.
It was her nightmare all over again. For the first time, the detective truly understood what Califf had meant when he described a Gen's ability to attract Simes as a power. If she fought Tallin, the augmentation required would throw her into a helpless attack, and she would be killed. If she tried to run, its startle reaction would again force her to attack it. She hadn't felt so helpless since she went into changeover.
The cool hand came to rest lightly on the back of Eskalie's neck. She tensed, hugging herself tightly for what meager protection that would offer, then held herself absolutely still. She didn't dare lift a tentacle that might be perceived as a threat.
The Gen rolled its eyes in exasperation. "Will you calm down? I'm not trying to seduce you into a transfer. All I'm going to do is lower your intil factor, just like I did back at the Forst Genfarm, after you'd gotten yourself into trouble looking over their merchandise."
The detective zlinned her tormentor in surprise. She hadn't realized that the Gen had understood the use she'd been making of its unnaturally calm, soothing nager. Of course, that had been before she knew why it had no fear of Simes in need. She'd thought at the time that it was simply too stupid to notice her condition.
Tallin's nager wrapped around her, trying to insinuate itself into her own field and control it. She resisted, surprised at how difficult it could be to evade a nageric attack waged by a creature that couldn't even zlin what it was doing.
"You'd think I was offering to kill the girl," the Gen muttered under its breath. It's nager rang with surprise as it felt her flinch in reaction to its complaint. "You mean you are afraid that I'd harm you?" it demanded incredulously. "Whatever put that idea into your junct head?"
"Yosum," she answered succinctly.
The indignation disappeared, overcome by understanding and compassion. "Yes, I dispatched your old schoolmate," the Gen said. "I'd do the same to anyone who threatened to kill or murder me or someone in my charge."
Eskalie blinked at hearing herself described in such a way. At the time, she's thought Tallin was a valuable pet Gen which was her responsibility to protect from harm.
"I don't go around killing Simes just for the fun of it," the Gen continued. "Do you have any immediate plans to inflict grievous bodily injury on me or any other member of my party?"
Mutely, the detective shook her head.
"Well, then, I have no immediate plans to inflict grievous bodily injury on you. I also have no immediate plans to leave until you're stable again, so I suggest you stop fighting me and let me get to work."
There had been no quiver of dishonesty in anything Tallin had said, including the thinly veiled threat to hold her hostage until she cooperated. Since there wasn't much Eskalie could do to stop the Gen, she gave a defeated nod and slumped on her crate.
"That's right," Tallin coaxed, as the nageric surrounded her once more. "Now zlin me. There'll be plenty of selyn for you when you need it, so you don't have to worry. You can wait a few days more. There's no rush."
As the Gen spoke, its powerful nager linked with hers, a throbbing source of life which imposed its pristine order on the chaos need and intil had made of her own field. I mustn't try to take it, she reminded herself fuzzily, even if it does zlin available.
However, she soon discovered that she didn't really have to worry about accidentally trying to take the Gen. Attrition seemed like a fairy tale, so unreal that she couldn't even work up a serious interest in the ripe nager beside her. Why bother with the effort required to secure the source of selyn when it wasn't going anywhere?
She blinked in astonishment as Tallin withdrew hand and nager, once more able to think clearly. All of the incessant, growing terror of hard need was gone, and even the residual shiltpron-headache had faded away. She felt barely past turnover, aware that need was approaching, but not particularly concerned about it.
"How...?" she asked, as the Gen stepped back, nodding to itself in satisfaction. The Householders are tops at training animals, but how could even they train a Gen to do that when it can't zlin what it's doing?
"It's just one of my many useful skills," Tallin said cheerfully, with an impudent wink. "It works a bit faster when I don't have to pretend I'm looking out the window instead. Shall we return to your friend?"
Eskalie automatically responded to the polite suggestion by getting up and walking towards the tunnel entrance. The Gen bowed her through with practiced courtesy, sublimely unaware of the comic figure it cut as it mimicked the actions of a well-bred Sime. You'd think it owned the place.
When Eskalie once more entered the smuggler's Pen, she found her Gen as lowfield as if it had established only a few days before, although its weak field still had the more complex patterns which developed only later, after a Gen's field had peaked. Helka was not only completely unharmed by the process, but Califf had somehow managed to spur the Gen's various cuts and bruises to heal, and some of the horror had left its nager. It was still weak from its ordeal, but it was undeniably in good condition to travel.
"I zlin you take your promises seriously," Eskalie remarked with some amusement.
"Of course," Califf said. "I zlin that Father has been taking good care of you, but are you sure you really want to travel when you're so close to need? You and Miz Arslan would be welcome to stay at Dar for a few days." The channel's field because more Genlike, pulsing higher with unvoiced invitation.
Eskalie's gorge rose. The pervert's insatiable, she thought. He just took Helka, and now he's trying to seduce me into taking him. He doesn't even seem to care which side of a fake kill he's on, as long as it happens as frequently as possible.
"Thank you for your assistance," the detective said firmly. It was as much a dismissal as an expression of gratitude. "Would you kindly tell Amsil that I will meet her at the hotel later?"
Califf took the hint graciously. "Of course. We really should be leaving in any case. The streets should be clear by now, and we are expected at home. Come, Father."
Tallin gave Helka's shoulder a final reassuring squeeze, nodded politely to Eskalie, then followed its owner down the tunnel. Eskalie waited until their nagers were no longer zlinnable, then turned to her former friend. She wasn't quite sure what to say. The Sommerin Academy's etiquette lessons hadn't covered the proper mode of address to use with a Gen which one used to know socially.
Helka stared back, equally tongue-tied.
"You can't travel without tags," the detective said finally, her mind turning to practicalities. "Here. These will do, until we can get you some real ones."
Holding her breath, she knelt by Gavvin's body, careful to avoid the liquid which had begun to seep from it. You've handled dead Gens before, she reminded herself as she groped for the catch. It yielded at last, and she worked it free from the tangled hair. The tags jingled, and she automatically scanned them with the reflex of the educated when presented with something to read. The information almost caused her to drop the collar on its previous owner.
"Gavvin was sold to the Fire Palace?" The notorious Tormin killhouse boasted of its well-appointed torture facilities.
Helka nodded. "When he found out, he panicked, and, well, that was that." The Gen shuddered.
"I guess that famous luck was real, after all," Eskalie commented, as she cleaned the mess off the collar with her handkerchief. Headmistress Rahah was right, you never know when you're going to require one. "Believe me, the Fire Palace is no place for a Gen." She inspected the collar, nodded in satisfaction, then fastened it around Helka's neck.
Any worries that Helka would give the game away by failing to act the part of a newly captured Choice Kill vanished. The cringing horror that sparked the ambient as the lock clicked shut brought Eskalie's laterals out of their sheathes, lowfield as the Gen was.
"Don't do that," she snapped, as much of Tallin's expert work was undone.
The Gen flared fear as it realized what was happening, then struggled to bring its roiling emotions under control, with only partial success.
"I'm sorry, Eskalie."
Grimly, Eskalie reminded herself that the Gen had not been selected and trained for emotional stability, as a pet Gen would have been, and that her own conversation with Califf had given it a new hope that it might survive. As a result, its nager was not settling down into the numbed, hopeless acceptance which would have avoided tempting passing Simes--and Eskalie herself. The channel's efforts had greatly reduced the effect, but not eliminated it entirely.
"Let's go," the detective ordered shortly, nodding towards the tunnel.
Helka followed, stumbling in the dim light from the lantern.
Like any other Gen.
Eskalie managed to lead her Gen out the kitchen door of the Smuggler's Roost without being zlinned by any of the other customers. Her first stop was the Pen, where Amsil's friend Faylee made out a new set of tags. Fortunately, the Penkeeper didn't ask too many questions, contenting herself with merely teasing Eskalie on her good fortune. The detective forced herself to respond in kind as she slipped the old tags into her pocket, hoping that any breaks in her good-humored facade would be attributed to her growing need.
New owner of a premium Gen or not, Eskalie had been hired to do a job. The full fee could only improve life at Kirlin Security, and she now had almost enough leverage to earn it, if her suspicions were correct.
A city the size of Sommerin never shut down entirely, of course, but the streets were nearly empty as the detective led her Gen through them. The excitement of earlier in the day had sated the appetite for adventure among those who would normally be active at this hour, or at least deprived them of the coin they would require to indulge that appetite. Even the prostitutes had mostly given up and gone to rest in what homes they had, until there were customers for them again.
As a result, Eskalie had to decline only four offers to sell Helka by the time she reached the Market Inn. She was met at the door by an outraged innkeeper. The older Sime held a folded and sealed note in her handling tentacles, which she tapped against her hand as she glared at the detective.
"I run a decent place," she announced. "I expect my tenants to respect that. If you want to make friends with perverts, that's your business, but I don't want them coming in here again. Not even to deliver a message."
"The pervert left a message for me, then?" Eskalie asked blandly, wondering what Califf could possibly have to communicate to her. It must be urgent, or he would never have come into a place like the Market Inn, where his kind was so patently unwelcome.
As the innkeeper opened her mouth to continue her scold, the detective reached out and deftly plucked the note from the woman's tentacles. With a polite nod of thanks, she pushed past her would-be critic into the building. The Gen followed, unwilling to be separated from its protector.
"You owe me for passing on the message," the innkeeper shrieked after her.
"I'm sure you charged Sectuib Califf three times your usual fee for such services," the detective called over her shoulder. "And I don't tip servants who begrudge their service."
She left the innkeeper gaping after her, and took note and Gen to her room. Amsil had not yet returned, which worried her until she read the channel's message. The senior member of Kirlin Security had been in no condition to walk, so Califf had arranged with Zilmor to let her sleep it off at the Smuggler's Roost. Eskalie supposed that the place was marginally safer than sleeping in an alley.
She took the Gen to the facilities. As it washed, she extracted a small coin from her purse and braved the common room once more. She managed to waylay the serving boy without catching the attention of the innkeeper. After a brief negotiation, he hurried off to fetch her a loaf of bread and a pair of apples from the kitchen.
Helka was clean when she returned. Eskalie was not about to tolerate the filthy yawal in her room, so she dressed the Gen in her spare sleeping shirt, an oversized garment which Sesfin had worn almost to rags before reluctantly deciding that it was no longer presentable. It covered the essentials, and had the added virtue of being soft and comfortable.
When the Gen was decent, the detective handed it a quarter of the loaf. It ate hungrily, and Eskalie found herself halfway through one of the apples before she realized it. She tossed it the other fruit when it finished the bread.
A tear trickled down Helka's face as the Gen bit into the fruit. "I haven't had fruit since..." It broke off and shuddered.
"Didn't Sek feed you?" Eskalie asked, a bit surprised. Usually, elite killhouses like the Fire Palace demanded merchandise in prime condition, and poor nutrition tended to dull a Gen's spirit.
"Just bread and cheese," Helka answered. "And that only when he wasn't too drunk to remember to bring it." The Gen chewed another mouthful of apple. "He kept grumbling about delays. I don't think we were supposed to stay there so long."
"Probably not," the detective agreed. "There wouldn't have been any point to it, once your fields had peaked enough to interest a buyer."
The Gen put down the remains of the apple and buried its face in its hands. "It was awful, Eskalie. I went in for morning inspection, just like everybody has to. Mollins zlinned me, and then his face went completely blank, like I wasn't even there."
"Of course it did," Eskalie agreed, only moderately sympathetic. After all, the Helka Arslan who had been a Sommerin Academy student had ceased to exist with the first faint wisp of selyn production. "Did Sek bring you to that holding cell?"
Helka nodded, shuddering. "He was grinning the whole time, as if he was glad that I'd established.
"I expect he makes a lot of money from each Gen he....disposes of," Eskalie pointed out. And he hoped for two years that I would one of them. She frowned, remembering the tags which had been on Gavvin's collar. "Especially, it appears, the ones with parents who have paid the extra fee to ensure a safe trip to the border. While Gavvin, at least, would have been safe to within five miles of it, I don't think the Restons would be satisfied by that."
"They couldn't complain, even if they found out," Helka said, with a note of bitterness. "After all, the service they paid for is illegal. What could they do, go to the police?"
Eskalie looked thoughtful. "I have an idea to stop the cheating lorshes. However, it will require your cooperation."
The Gen's nager lit with the courage Eskalie remembered in her friend, and it leaned forward eagerly. "If it stops other students from being treated like I was, I'm in. But I want to be there."
"I'm not sure that's practical," the detective admitted dubiously.
"I don't care if it's practical," Helka said passionately. "Gavvin and I were to be sold to torture houses, Eskalie. My parents were cheated, and Gavvin's, and who knows how many others. I want to see that profitable game destroyed."
This was the Helka that Eskalie remembered, notwithstanding that the bright courage shone from a Gen nager. In her delight at having her friend back, the detective made a rash promise. "You'll be there. I can't promise you'll be able to see, but you'll be there."
The Gen smiled in satisfaction. "Well, then. How can I help?"
The detective grinned conspiratorially. "Suppose you start by telling me exactly how the operation works. Every detail, no matter how trivial. You never know what could be important."
Helka leaned forward, and for the half hour regaled Eskalie with a tale of woe. Most of it seemed to involve simply being treated like a Gen. The detective made sympathetic noises in the proper places, as the Gen complained about being stripped of student clothing and forced to wear a yawal, about the coarseness of the food it had been given, and about the closeness and smell of the Pen. You'd think it expected to be treated like an Arslan, despite everything.
"Hmm." Eskalie said thoughtfully, as the pieces of her puzzle settled into place. "You've been very helpful. I think I know how best to proceed now. You'd better get some sleep, however; tomorrow is going to be a busy day." In a fit of generosity, she indicated that the Gen could have the bed. After all, Amsil won't be back tonight, and I'll be able to plan better if I'm not zlinning it's bones poking against the floor.
The Gen nodded gratefully, and curled up to sleep. As its nager settled into a soothing pattern, the detective went over her evidence once more, checking for weak points. Then she roughed out a plan for the following day, and slipped a few necessary things into the pockets of her good clothes. When she had prepared for every eventuality she could anticipate, she climbed into bed next to the Gen.
On impulse, she stopped zlinning. For a few minutes, she listened to Helka's even breathing, imagining that they were children again, camping out in the woods on her parentsí estate. Then she heard strange footsteps in the hall, and zlinned automatically to determine who it was. The illusion shattered as Helka's reduced nager penetrated her own. The steady pulse of selyn production was comforting in a different fashion, however, and eventually she drifted off to sleep.
Eskalie was too close to need to sleep long, even next to a Gen. It was well before dawn when she slipped from the bed and made her way down the hall to the bathroom. After scrubbing off the last traces of yesterday evening's adventure, she put her good clothes on again. When she was presentable, she shook the Gen's shoulder.
The Gen sat up, groggily rubbing sleep from its eyes. "What?" It yawned hugely. "Sky's just began to brighten."
"If you want to be there when I expose how your parents were cheated, we have to get you into position now."
Much of the sleepiness disappeared from Helka's nager. "All right, just give me a moment." It climbed from the bed and started stretching the kinks out of its muscles.
Eskalie took it to the facilities, warning it to do a thorough job, then the two set out through the streets for the Sommerin Academy. There was some activity near the market, as farmers and merchants set up for the day, but the streets closer to their goal were almost deserted. The sun poked over the horizon, setting a flock of crows to quarreling, when they slipped unnoticed into the alley which ran behind the Sommerin Academy.
Eskalie zlinned the rear of the building carefully, checking for the nagers of any servants who might be late in leaving their rooms, and thus in a position to observe unorthodox proceedings at the rear of the building. However, there were no signs of adult activity, and at this hour, the children would be waiting in line in front of Mollins's office for their morning ordeal. It won't be as hopeless in the future, she promised them silently, then got to work.
The wall around the Academy's yard was designed to keep children in, not adult Simes out. Eskalie had to augment only slightly to catch the top with her handling tentacles, and a moment later, she was sitting astride it. She reached down and offered Helka a hand, tentacles spread. "Here. Let me pull you up."
Helka eyed the tentacles dubiously.
"Don't be a silly sheep," the detective snapped, irritated by the implied distrust. "How else can I get you inside? Did you expect me to just casually waltz through the door with you? 'Hello, Sek, do you like my new pet Gen?'"
The Gen in question blushed, embarrassed, and shook its head. It squared its shoulders, then put its hand in Eskalie's. The detective secured her grip with handling tentacles and easily pulled the Gen up to sit beside her.
"Now down the other side. You'll have to jump the last bit."
When Helka was safely inside the Academy's yard, the detective dropped lightly down beside her and led the way to the double doors which guarded the students' parlor. She zlinned cautiously through the glass, and looked for good measure, but as she expected, the room was deserted at this hour. With a smile, she tried the door, but the handle refused to turn. Shrugging, she pulled her set of lockpicks out of her pocket and prepared to remedy that situation.
"You know how to pick locks?" Helka said, the Gen's nager reflecting surprise and a bit of awe.
"It's a very useful skill for a professional investigator," the detective muttered absently, as she felt out the lock's structure. She was nowhere near as skilled with the picks as Califf's Killer Gen, but she couldn't help a small smile of triumph when the lock yielded in a respectably short time.
Easing the door open, she checked the room once more, then motioned Helka through. The Gen tiptoed after her to the fireplace, its nager displaying bewilderment when she pulled open the little closet in which the logs and kindling were stored. As she had hoped, the servants hadn't bothered to restock the closet after the last spring fire, and there were only a few logs scattered around.
"Step inside for a moment," she told Helka in a whisper. "I've got to check whether the door's solid enough to hide your field."
"There isn't any light." Helka complained.
The dark had lost its terror for Eskalie when changeover made it possible to zlin her surroundings. However, she remembered how the dark had seemed threatening as a child. Maybe it gets worse for Gens, instead of better?
Still, she couldn't afford to waste any time reassuring a spooked Gen; there was always the chance that someone would come by and zlin her where she had no right to be.
"Get in," she commanded. "Now."
Helka looked at the dark little hole dubiously, then stepped in. Eskalie closed the door, then extended her laterals. Even with her sensitivity heightened by approaching need, she could just barely zlin something different about the closet. It would have to do.
She reopened the door. "As long as you're quiet and calm, I don't think anybody will notice you," she reported.
"It's awful dark in here," the Gen complained again.
"If you want to hear the person who cheated your parents get what he deserves, you'll have to stand it. If you'd rather not, I can take you back to the hotel right now."
Presented with that choice, Helka quickly decided that the wood closet wasn't so intolerable, after all.
"Now, you might as well get comfortable," the detective continued. "Nothing is going to happen until midmorning tea. With any luck, I can clear up a few last points then, and make my report to Headmistress Rahah." It would take some contriving to get Rahah to come to her in the student parlor, rather than her going to the Headmistress's office, but Eskalie was confident that she could manage it.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out more bread and a small canteen. "Here. These will have to last you all day, so use them sparingly. I'll be back for you at dinner time, when everybody will be in the kitchen or dining hall. Whatever you do, don't set foot out of the closet until then."
"I won't," Helka promised, taking the supplies.
For a long moment, Eskalie hesitated, fighting the urge to call the whole mad scheme off. However, she had given her word, and the word of a Morlin was legendary.
With a last nervous smile at Helka, she closed the closet door firmly, and made her way out of the Sommerin Academy by the same route she had used to enter. With hours yet before she could proceed with her plans, she sought out a tea shop. Sipping a cup of the best blend she had had in months used up an hour, by which time the market was in full swing.
Most of her advance would have to go to Kirlin Investigations, to pay for the rent and Pen taxes. However, she couldn't resist the chance to fill the waiting time by picking up some baubles: a scarf for Amsil, a curiously carved wooden statue for her Uncle Rabin, and for Sesfin, a crudely printed monograph. It perported to describe, in lurid detail, the crimes of a particularly debauched group of Freebanders who delighted in slicing the tips off honest citizens' laterals, and then using a shiltpron to magnify their victims' death agonies. A quick glance assured the detective that the illustrations and grammar were as crude as the plot.
Sesfin will love it.
She returned to the Sommerin Academy just as the children were entering their parlor for their midmorning break. A quick inspection showed that neither servants nor children were paying any particular attention to the wood closet, and she breathed a bit easier.
Mindful of her promise to let Helka listen to everything, she ignored Emlee's pouts and took up a station on a stool near the fireplace. Unlike the sought-after armchair, the stool's seat was a simple wooden plank, and therefore devoid of lumps. And none of the servants will be able to zlin anything odd about the closet while my nager is in the way.
The loners and pariahs among the Academy's select assemblage might not be as socially adept as their more accepted peers, but they shared many of the same abiding interests.
"Are you sure it wasn't cold showers? My father swears by them."
Since joining Kirlin Security, Eskalie had frequently sworn at them, but she supposed that was different.
"It's an amulet if it's ugly or cheap or something. Jewelry you'd wear anyway, even if it weren't lucky. I had a lucky amulet I bought from the new upstairs maid, shaped like a bar of soap with a lucky symbol carved into it, and it only cost me half of my quarterly allowance."
The detective had to wonder how much of her Pen taxes the upstairs maid had managed to pay by selling decorated cleaning supplies to credulous students.
"I wanted the little room at the end of the hall so badly--you know the one, half the size of the others and with the low ceiling because it's tucked in under the eaves? The farthest away from the bathroom?"
When Eskalie admitted familiarity with the room in question, her informant continued, "It's the only room in the whole school where the door faces East, you know, and there's a cracked pane on the window, so the total number of pieces of glass isn't divisible by eight any more. Well, you can imagine what the competition was like, when Gavvin...." The child squirmed. "Anyway, it's Emlee's now, and no getting her out of it."
"I suppose not."
In the end, the detective didn't have to find a pretext to lure the Headmistress from her office. Rahah came by the parlor as the children left, anxious for an update on the progress of the investigation.
"I am reasonably certain that I know who took the items," Eskalie admitted. "However, I will have to question the servants to discover exactly where they are now. Do I have your permission to do that?"
Rahah's nager brightened at the possibility that the thief wasn't one of the students, after all. "Of course," she agreed.
"Then I might as well start at the top," the detective said. She turned to the butler, who was directing one of the maids in clearing the tea things away, and spoke in a clear voice, so that Helka would be able to hear. "Mollins, what did you do with Neeka's opal ring and Blista's pearl necklace, after you took them off of Gavvin Reston? Vag's pocket watch might also have been part of the collection."
The butler's shock caused the maid to drop the tea tray. Cold tea and half eaten bread rolls spread over the floor, mixed with shards of pottery and sticky jam. The woman zlinned what she had done and shrieked in horror. She threw her apron over her head and bolted before the butler could reprimand her.
Mollins, however, was more than occupied with some damage control of his own. "I'm afraid I don't understand you," he said stiffly, forcing his nager back into a semblance of his usual dignified blandness.
The detective rolled her eyes at this obvious evasion. "Gavvin's corpse was wearing a yawal. Since that isn't standard student dress at this Academy, the clothes the Gen was wearing when its establishment was detected must have ended up somewhere."
"I haven't seen the pocket watch since Vag lost it," the butler insisted.
Eskalie had dissembled by telling part of the truth often enough to recognize the technique when it was applied against her. "But you do have the other two items, don't you? And you've known for weeks that Gavvin stole them."
Faced with the direct question, Mollins was unable to deny it.
Rahah looked at her butler. "You let me hire a professional investigator, when you knew the thief's identity and had already recovered some of the items? Why didn't you tell me?"
Mollins shuffled uncomfortably, his usual composure shattering.
"I imagine it was because he felt there was more profit in selling the ring and necklace, than in returning them to their proper owners," the detective remarked dryly.
"I never thought you might be a common thief, Mollins," the headmistress said, wringing her tentacles in distress. "Stealing from the students!"
"I never stole a thing from a student!" the butler protested, his nager ringing with the truth of his statement.
"Of course you didn't," Eskalie agreed. "You just failed to return stolen property when it was recovered. Stealing from thieves can be a profitable business, and the risks are minimal."
"I thought better of you, Mollins," the Headmistress declared, in the tone which she usually used to pronounce the doom of wayward pupils. "We will discuss this at length, later. For the moment, I suggest that you produce the ring and necklace. Instantly, if not sooner."
"Of course, Headmistress. I'll bring them at once, Headmistress."
As the ex-butler bowed and made his escape, thoroughly cowed, Rahah turned back to Eskalie. "Keeping stolen property. What a vulgar thing to do." She gave a refined shudder. "But where are the other items?"
"If the pattern holds true, they should be--" Eskalie walked over to the battered old armchair. She zlinned it, grinned, then removed the cushion. "--here. No wonder the seat felt so lumpy."
And indeed, under the cushion, stuffed into the cracks and depressions left by torn cloth and broken springs, was a motley collection of objects: cheap trinkets, bits of shell and driftwood, and not a few bars of soap. Nestled among them were the missing pocket watch, and a lovely ivory carving of a fish.
Eskalie gently extracted the two items and passed them to Rahah.
The headmistress took them, inspected them briefly, and tucked them away in a pocket for safekeeping. Then she looked over the rest of the assortment. "What a magpie's nest," she said. "Why would anybody bother to collect such a heap of useless junk?"
"Luck," the detective answered. She began removing the trash from the chair as she continued. "Gavvin Reston was terrified that he would establish, so he set out to steal every lucky piece he could. I don't know if he ever thought of the ring, watch, necklace and carving as being more valuable than the other amulets."
Eskalie paused as her searching tentacles found an unexpected object tucked into a hole in the stuffing. Slowly, she pulled out a crudely carved green stone, hung on a leather thong. The carving was well worn by childish fingers, but she could still trace the grooves delineating tail and whiskers.
My lucky malachite mouse. I didn't lose it, after all.
She slipped the amulet into her pocket, and continued. "The current superstition among the students holds that lucky amulets are to be placed at one's 'seat of power', as was done here, but jewelry must be worn to be effective. That's why I was so sure that Mollins would have found the ring and necklace on Gavvin when the Gen established."
Rahah winced at hearing a former student's unfortunate situation referred to in such blunt terms, then turned to investigate a disturbance in the ambient out in the hall.
It proved to be the butler, returning with a caller. "She is in here, Tuib," he said, bowing the visitor into the parlor with rigid correctness.
"Headmistress Rahah," the visitor said, advancing with a well-bred smile pasted on her face which contrasted oddly with the sorrow in her nager. "Before I left, I wanted to thank you for..."
The door to the wood cabinet flew open, and the Simes whirled in unison at the sudden impact of a Gen nager.
"Semma!" Helka cried, and catapulted into the startled woman's arms. "They were going to sell me to a killhouse."
Headmistress Rahah was very apologetic, of course. When the outraged Semma demanded an accounting, reminding her of the extra fee the Arslans had paid to ensure that Helka would be taken to the border in case of establishment, she started wringing her tentacles in distress.
"I had no idea," she said, the truth of her remarks plain for all of the Simes to zlin. "I'll offer you a full refund, of course. I don't know how this could have happened." Like a person who worries a sore tooth, just to see if it still hurts, she once more zlinned the pulsing selyn production in her former student.
"I know how it happened," Eskalie said. She was still new enough at the detective business to enjoy the confusion carried on the ambient. When it started to turn to annoyance, she shrugged and stated, "Why, it's obvious. The butler did it."
"Mollins?" Rahah zlinned her butler in astonishment, and paled as his guilt confirmed the detective's words. "I thought you were loyal," she accused him.
The butler's eyes flickered around the room as he zlinned Rahah's betrayed hurt, Eskalie's contempt, and the burning anger Semma was projecting as she stood protectively in front of her little sister.
"I can explain," he said quickly, his professional calm deserting him. Despite the butler's assurance, he zlinned like he was desperately trying to come up with an explanation which would be acceptable.
"Let me help," Eskalie offered. "You can tell me if I've gotten any of it wrong. Years ago, Headmistress Rahah asked you to arrange for certain former students which had established to be taken to the border and released. Since she made it very clear that she didn't want to know the details, you decided to take advantage of the situation and sell the Gens instead, keeping the profit for yourself."
The butler's reaction showed Eskalie that her deductions were correct, so she continued.
"You could have taken the Gens to the border, with very little risk. If you'd been caught, the Gen would have been confiscated, but Rahah would have paid your fine."
The headmistress nodded in corroboration.
"However, the situation was more complicated if you wanted to sell the Gens instead. You couldn't do it locally, or Headmistress Rahah would have found out. Furthermore, while it's easier to smuggle a lowfield Gen to the border, most Gen dealers won't pay full price until they know what kind of a kill it will make. You had to have a place where you could hold the Gens for a few weeks, until their fields could peak, and you also required connections to Gen dealers and killhouses who wouldn't inspect your stock's papers too closely. That's where Sek came in."
"I always wondered why you let him stay on," Eskalie remarked conversationally. "He's a disgrace as a footman, with his drunken rages. However, he did have his past to recommend him: specifically, his association with the former Genrunning gang headed by a criminal named Temment. Am I correct?"
"Yes," the tight-lipped butler confirmed.
"I'm glad to hear it." The detective looked around at her audience, enjoying the undivided attention they were giving her story. "When Temment's gang disbanded, Sek had no stomach for earning an honest living, so he sold you the only things he had left: the secret Pen under a barn outside town which was used as a holding area by his former boss, and his connections with less-than-honest Gen dealers. Even so, I'm a little surprised that you were so willing to keep him on permanently in exchange."
"He never would give me the names of his contacts," Mollins admitted, "and it was convenient to have someone else to look after the Gens. A butler's absences are much more noticeable than a footman's."
Eskalie nodded. "The scheme worked very well for years. When you discovered an establishment among the students whose parents had paid the extra fee, you had Sek take them out to your private Pen. He cared for them until their fields were high enough to interest his friends, and then arranged for the sale. I expect your part was to provide the false papers; I doubt Sek is literate. The two of you would split the profit, and no one was the wiser, particularly not the Gens' families, who'd paid good money to buy safety for them, or Headmistress Rahah, who'd trusted you to see that their wishes were carried out."
The butler squirmed at hearing such a blunt description of his betrayal, but said nothing.
"But then, two weeks ago, things started getting complicated," the detective continued. "You had two Gens in hiding at the time, Helka and Gavvin Reston, when that group of field hands set up camp right around the silo which hid one entrance to your Pen. The other tunnel led to the root cellar of the shiltpron parlor, though, and Sek was able to bring food and water to your stock by posing as a regular customer. He must have been ecstatic at the opportunity."
"He was," Mollins admitted wryly.
"Then Sek sold Gavvin to the Fire Palace in Tormin. Whatever plans the two of you had to deliver the merchandise failed when the Gen discovered its destination, panicked, and was killed by Sek. You discussed his shortcomings with him rather forcefully, judging from the condition of his face and your hand. Then you left the body there to rot. With Helka. In the dark."
A predatory growl broke from Semma's lips at this description of her little sister's plight, and Rahah demanded, "How could you?"
"They were Gens," the butler said, his nager displaying self-righteous indignation. "Whatever they were as children, once they established, they were just Gens, good for the kill and nothing more. I know lots of people are sentimental about Gens they knew as children. While I don't see the point of such attitudes, I made sure that anyone who wanted to believe the Gens were safe on the other side of the border would never learn differently. Those parents were really paying to preserve their memories of their child intact, and you know it. As long as they kept their illusions, what does it matter what actually happened to the Gens?"
Semma's fists clenched with fury, her tentacles lashing around them as if longing to strangle Mollins. "You lorsh!" she snarled. "Wait until my parents learn what you did to my sister."
Rahah flinched at the mention of the elder Arslans. Mollins, however, was more interested in justifying his behavior than in the potential damage to the school if word of the butler's Gendealing got out.
"It's not your sister!" the butler insisted, pointing to where the alarmed Helka was huddled against the wall, listening to the Simes argue. "Zlin it. It's a Gen, collared and tagged. A Prime Kill. And I have as much right to claim and sell an untagged Gen as any other citizen."
"If that's the way you feel," Rahah said with quiet determination, "then I hope you saved enough of your ill-gotten profits to live on, because neither you nor your unsavory accomplice will see another coin from me. Don't bother asking me for references, because I couldn't recommend either of you to another employer. When I think of how many years you were deceiving me..."
Mollins sneered. "You were more than willing to be deceived."
"To my sorrow, I was," the headmistress agreed. "I will show you to the door personally. I wouldn't want you to be tempted to steal the school's silver on the way out, as you've stolen its students."
"Speaking of stolen goods," Eskalie reminded her, "you might want to relieve him of the necklace and ring."
The detective enjoyed the flare of fury in the butler's nager as he passed over his loot. She could find no sympathy for the man. If I'd turned Gen, Mollins would have sold me to the Fire Palace or worse, just like he planned to do with Gavvin and Helka. At least the ones sold to the public Pen could hope to be bought by someone who would give them a relatively quick death!
As the butler was escorted out of the parlor, Semma drew Eskalie discreetly aside. "I hate to ask this, when you've already done so much," she said apologetically. "However, that Gen over there with your tags on its collar used to be my sister. Do you mind telling me what you plan to do with it?"
Eskalie let her honest ambivalence show. "I just don't know, Semma. I don't want Helka killed, and I can't afford the taxes on a pet Gen. On the other tentacle, I'd lose my place at Kirlin Security if I was caught illegally releasing a Gen at the border. People aren't looking the other way as much, after the way Councilman Whilly has been talking against it, and the Border Patrol has much better horses than I can afford."
Semma smiled in relief, dismissing the objections with a wave of one tentacle. "Well, then, we'll just have to make sure that no one can catch you. The two horses Toria and I rode in on can outrun just about anything, and if you get caught anyway, this should cover any fine." She held out her purse, heavy with traveling money. "If you'll see Helka safe for me, you can keep the black mare when you're done."
Eskalie zlinned the purse, sorely tempted. It contained enough gold to support all three members of Kirlin Security for two months, an important consideration since the detective doubted that Rahah would pay her the rest of her fee, after the damage the detective had done to her school's reputation. The prospect of owning the dainty black mare was even more tempting. Still, while Eskalie's ethics had necessarily become a bit flexible since she had run away from her comfortable debutante's life, she liked to think that her honesty was not for sale.
She zlinned Helka, deliberately not looking. She had never zlinned her former friend as a child; the pulsing nager might belong to any Gen. It wasn't just any Gen, however, and somehow, she couldn't believe that everything that had made Helka her friend was gone.
"Please, Eskalie?" Semma begged. "If anyone can see Helka to safety, it's you. Will you?"
What the shen else can I do with the Gen?
With a resigned sigh, Eskalie reached for Semma's purse.
Eskalie was feeling much better about the deal half an hour later, as she guided the dainty black mare through the streets. The beast was as smooth-gaited as it looked, and utterly responsive to the least touch of rein or shift of weight. She had never ridden a finer animal, even as a child, and she was eager to get it on the open road.
I can be home and at the Pen by noon tomorrow. Without the excitement of a mystery to puzzle out, even the mare was not sufficient to distract her from need.
The Gen was keeping Toria's bay as close to the black mare as the high-strung creature would tolerate. A packhorse tethered to the bay's saddle carried the contents of Helka's former room at the Sommerin Academy, which her sister had originally planned to take to their parents.
When Eskalie reached the Market Inn, she found Amsil on the porch, nursing her hangover. The older Sime blinked, then rubbed her eyes.
"Tell me I'm hallucinating again," she groaned.
The detective decided to soften up her boss before bringing up the subject of pedigreed horses and premium Gens. "I solved the case over at the Sommerin Academy," she said, holding up the purse Semma had given her.
Amsil was not hurting too badly to zlin the density of the coins, and her eyes widened. "Must have been some job. Were the horses part of the deal, too?"
"Well, sort of," the detective admitted.
"You'll have to tell me about it. Some other time." Her attention strayed from the horses to the Gen, and she frowned as she zlinned its low, if climbing, field. "Found yourself a kill at the Gen Market? You'd have done better at home. Or is this an investment? There's places in Tormin that would pay a pretty price for a Gen like that, once its field's grown."
Helka's field shimmered with alarm, and Eskalie gritted her teeth. She nudged the mare with one heel, and it took a neat step sideways and stopped between her Gen and her boss. "Helka used to be my best friend," the detective told Amsil, a pleading look in her eyes. I can't bear to see Helka killed, even now. "Her sister asked me to..."
Amsil held up a silencing tentacle before Eskalie could start to explain. "I don't want to know about it, and if the Border Patrol asks, I fired you yesterday," she said firmly. "I'll be hiring a new replacement in a few days, in case you're interested. And Eskalie..." she paused, slightly embarrassed.
"Don't make a habit of this, but good luck." Her nager held genuine encouragement, despite the headache.
"Thanks!" Eskalie said, a bit surprised. Amsil was usually a stickler for avoiding anything which could sully Kirlin Security's good name.
The older Sime nodded. "Just don't tell Sesfin, or neither of us will ever hear the end of it. And one more thing..." She surveyed the outsized nightshirt which Helka was wearing critically. "You'd better put something heavier on that Gen, or it'll be sneezing before you leave Sommerin."
"Oh." Eskalie grinned weakly, embarrassed at requiring such a reminder.
Amsil grinned back, then made her way back inside. "I'm for a headache remedy, and they say porstan makes a good one." She paused in the doorway to flick a cheerful tentacle in farewell. Helka flinched at the sight, jarring the ambient uncomfortably, and Eskalie gritted her teeth.
"Don't do that," she protested irritably. With less than two days before her kill, every flare of Gen fear was an irritant, even though Helka's nager now lacked the strength to trigger an actual attack.
"I'm sorry," the Gen said timidly.
Eskalie reminded herself that the Gen had not been selected for its even temper, as pet Gens were, nor trained to Dar's exacting standards. She couldn't expect it to remain steady when there were strange Simes around.
It's going to be a long trip to the Border.
She got off her mare and made her way back to the pack horse, and opened a bag which appeared to contain clothing. Sorting through the contents, she selected the plainest outfit she could find: a loose white shirt and tan pants. It was close enough to pass for the sort of travel outfits that some of the better Genfarms used for their merchandise, and it was certainly warmer than Sesfin's old shirt.
She handed her selection to Helka. "Put these on."
"Here?" The Gen cast an eye around the innyard, and the road beyond. "It's awfully public."
"Just do it," the detective ordered. She couldn't understand Helka's reluctance. People bathed and dressed their Gens in public all the time. Besides, it wasn't as if the presence or absence of clothes would affect the passing Sime's interest in Helka's nager one way or the other.
Cowed, the Gen dismounted and obeyed. It looked much more like a person, dressed in regular clothes. If Eskalie forced herself not to zlin, she could almost imagine she and her friend were still children again, and that they were riding towards an adventure no more dangerous than a picnic.
Then a delivery cart turned into the innyard, and its driver called out to Eskalie, offering to buy her Gen. The illusion shattered. She managed to call out a polite refusal, and started her little train moving towards the road.
It was far too late to make Tormin by dark, of course, and entering the city wasn't part of Eskalie's plan in the first place. The detective kept to a sensible pace, and called a halt well before the horses were in any danger of stumbling. The site she selected for her camp was a pleasant one: a grove of trees next to a stream, three miles from their goal. It was also a good quarter mile off the road. with a hill to block the nagers of passing travelers.
If I can't zlin people on the road, they can't zlin me--or Helka.
The Gen was exhausted, and curled up on its blanket to sleep as soon as it had finished the piece of bread Eskalie handed it for supper. The detective was just as glad to be left alone. She had tried to talk to Helka as they rode, just to determine if the previous night's conversation had been a fluke, or if there really was something left of the friend she had loved. If there was, it was well hidden. What she had zlinned was a Gen, an animal, with concerns that revolved around food, sleep, and staying a safe distance away from Simes.
She--no, it--doesn't even trust me anymore, Eskalie thought sadly. All their childhood oaths of eternal friendship meant nothing, now that she had tentacles and Helka didn't.
Wasn't that what Mom and Dad tried to tell me? the detective wondered, lulled into a philosophical mood by the peace of the night, and the steady throb of selyn production in the sleeping Gen. That you can't stay a child forever, and when you grow up, you have to leave childish things behind? That even under the best of circumstances, childhood friends have to rebuild their friendship when they become adults?
She remembered the ghostly, insubstantial nagers of the children at the Sommerin Academy. It was is if children were half human and half animal, caught between two possible futures. At adolescence, the ones who became Sime gained the other half of their humanity. The rest gradually lost what little they'd ever had, including the ability to form the kind of close, Sime friendships Eskalie had experienced with her lover Sesfin and his sister.
As she rolled up in her own blanket to get the little sleep a Sime required, she wondered sadly just how long it would take before the last vestiges of her former friend were gone forever. Her dreams were vague and disturbing: she seemed to be running endlessly in a search for safety, as her form changed slowly from Sime to child, to Gen, and back to child again.
She was up before dawn, caring for the horses as she waited for the Gen to wake up. When Helka had finished the last of the bread, the detective led her small party on a wide detour around Tormin. Her goal was a little used path, hardly more than a deer track, that followed a stream up the side of a small mountain. On the other side of the pass was a fertile valley farmed by the Wild Gens, which transported their produce down the river to the larger Gen settlements in the main part of Gen Territory.
They rejoined the road well beyond Tormin, and the military camp which protected it and this section of the Border from marauding Wild Gens. Eskalie was cheered to see tracks in the dust: four well-trampled rows of hoofprints. Far in the distance, she could zlin the disciplined formation of a troop of cavalry making a sweep. They were professionally alert, but without the edge of tension which would have accompanied trouble.
Good. Where the Border Patrol is inspecting, there won't be any other unpleasant surprises. There were no Licensed Raiders currently operating from Tormin, and the unlicensed variety preferred to keep their activities unobserved by the authorities.
She followed cautiously, matching her pace with the troop. Her sensitivity heightened by hard need, Eskalie was able to zlin the massed nagers of the patrollers at a distance. The soldiers, zlinning through the distortions their own troop made in the ambient, were unable to perceive the lone Sime and the lowfield Gen.
"Not much farther now," the detective told her charge. "The trail to Gen Territory starts up the mountain about two miles from here."
The prospect of immanent freedom didn't seem to have raised Helka's spirits. The Gen continued to radiate apprehension, and Eskalie began to wonder if she was doing it a favor by releasing it into the wild. After all, even the smartest domesticated animals often had trouble winning acceptance from their wild peers.
But what other choice is there?
There might not be much left of her friend Helka in the Gen, but even that little was too much for Eskalie to be comfortable killing it, or selling it to someone else to kill. The Genfarms preferred to use Pen-raised females for breeding, believing that Gens raised expecting to be Sime were more trouble than they were worth.
She could have given Helka to Sectuib Califf. However, the thought of having a former friend used to further perversion was nauseating, and she didn't want to be responsible for loosing another Killer Gen on the world.
Besides, I'm not doing this for Helka, she realized. Not really. I'm doing this for Semma, and for myself. As long as they didn't actually know what happened to the Gen, they could imagine that the ghost of the person they loved had somehow managed to survive inside it.
With that realization, Eskalie finally understood why her parents had shipped her off to the Sommerin Academy, and refused to let her come home for so long, even for a visit. It wasn't that they didn't care about me. They cared too much--and they couldn't bear the thought of zlinning me as a Gen.
She wasn't sure she was ready to forgive them yet, and she certainly had no intention of giving up her work with Kirlin Security for a career in banking. However, she resolved to at least give her uncle permission to send her parents a letter. They spent enough time worrying about how my future would go. I should at least let them know how it is going.
It was almost noon when Eskalie pulled the mare to a halt, letting the Border Patrol troop ride out of range. She zlinned carefully in all directions, making sure that no other travelers were about.
"It's clear," she announced. She nudged the mare with one heel, and it sidled over towards the bay gelding. She halted her mount, then dropped her reins. The well-trained animal stayed in place, ears pricked, as Eskalie reached over and removed the traveling collar from around the Gen's neck.
For just a moment, the old Helka seemed to look at her from the Gen's eyes. "I'll never forget you," it said, as a steady stream of tears slid down its cheeks, washing clean tracks in the dust.
The detective was gripped by the urge to make some parting gesture. After a moment's thought, she reached into her right pocket and withdrew the malachite mouse. With one tentacle, she offered it to Helka.
"This kept me safe while I learned to ride. Maybe it will keep you safe now."
"Your mouse necklace?" The Gen's nager suffused with awed hope. It reached an unsteady hand to accept the trinket, and put the worn thong around its neck where the collar had been.
Unable to cry because of her need, Eskalie nodded. "The trail starts through the forest on the other side of the meadow, right by the big oak. Keep moving, and you'll be in Gen Territory by dark."
Eskalie watched as Helka trotted the placid gelding across the meadow, the packhorse trailing behind, towards freedom and such safety as a Wild Gen could know. By the time the Gen reached the other side of the meadow, it was too far away to see clearly. Only its nager was perceptible, pulsing with a steady, hopeless anxiety.
Would I have been that fearful of everything, even freedom, if I'd turned Gen?
Eskalie considered the question carefully as Helka paused by the oak tree to wave, then disappeared into the forest. Beneath her, the black mare danced, impatient to see what new challenge lay beyond the next hill. It would never be content to plod along like its former stablemate.
And there's my answer, Eskalie realized, patting the mare's neck in thanks. I could never have been a Gen, because if I'd been one, I wouldn't be me!
She chuckled in sheer delight as the simple truth lifted the lingering depression of years spent not knowing whether she had a future. She was a Sime, now, and no lucky charm was required to keep her that way. Leave that for children and Gens.
She extended her handling tentacles to wrap around the reins, admiring their strength and flexibility as she hadn't since just after her changeover. The mare bobbed its head and snorted, quivering with stored energy.
"We'll go far together," she told it. "After all, we've got all the time in the world. But right now, there's a kill waiting for me back in town."
She signaled with heel and rein, and the mare obediently pivoted, turning their backs on the trail to Gen Territory. The detective leaned forward and loosened the reins. In response, the mare sprang into a hand gallop, delighting in its own speed.
Grinning, Eskalie rode towards Tormin, leaving the last of her childhood fears behind her in a cloud of dust.
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