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|Creators: Ellen Million (Writer)|
|Ressa and Bai continue to be unwitting pawns in Jarl's manipulations.|
|Posted: 09/16/11 [1 Comment]
~ 3495 words.|
Jarl toyed with the cut-glass bottle, keeping the stopper under one thumb. A drop of the amber liquid was very nearly as pricey as the harpoon snail paralytic that he bought on the black market. This, while not illegal, had the potential to be just as dangerous, if applied right. A card with a glossy red lip print lay on the desk in front of him.
"How is our railcar driver enjoying his assignment?" he asked the minion who sat across from him.
A broad smile answered him. "I'd say it's going well. He's got a standing appointment with the woman whenever the rail brings him into Affamarg and the licensing office staff is speculating about entanglement paperwork."
"Entanglement paperwork!" Jarl smirked. Entanglement paperwork was only filed when a carnal guild employee was choosing not to charge their client; an indication that a relationship was moving beyond a simple business transaction. "And how is that rumor being taken?"
"Definitely having the desired effect," the minion said with satisfaction. "At least, if the License Master's black mood is any indication. He's short as a Djuurludirj with anyone but her."
Jarl nodded, then said, "Good. Keep your eyes open for a chance to throw them together when you can and see if we can't knock his stress level up another notch. Have you had a chance to see about sabotaging the presses?"
"They are well-protected," the minion said apologetically. "I'm working on it, but even maintenance is under tough scrutiny right now."
Jarl held the cut-glass bottle to the sun, admiring the smoky depths. "Carry on," he said. "We're making good progress. And don't get impatient; the city of lights wasn't built overnight."
"The city of lights is being destroyed," the other said quizzically.
"It had to be built, to be destroyed," Jarl replied with a grin.
# # #
Ressa hummed as she approached the stair lobby, caught herself, and stopped. It was a few ticks past closing, but there were few a few license office workers in the hallway who might be irritated by her noise.
Bai, waiting beside the door to the new personnel lift with a maintenance man, glowered at her, gave the barest nudge of a polite nod and looked away. She nodded to Bai politely in return and stepped past him towards the stairs, to be blocked by a man in an orange and red guild vest with a Licensing Office maintenance insignia who was carrying a box of tools.
"Sorry, Citizen," the mousy little maintenance man said to Ressa. "They're replacing some time crystals in the stairwell, you'll have to take the personal lift!"
"Ah well," Ressa chuckled. "I've probably gotten my exercise for the day carrying the copies of the updated land priestess treaties up the stairs twice."
Bai gave one dry sound that might have been half of a malformed chuckle, and the maintenance man disappeared up the stairwell. Bai studiously scowled at the scrollwork on the lift door. It was so new that the informational signs for it were still on the ground next to door, waiting to be mounted, and the whole contraption smelled of fresh paint and new grease.
"It's a lovely door," Ressa said pointedly. "But it's hardly worth that kind of scrutiny."
He glanced at her briefly, an odd expression over his usually-placid face, then fixed his gaze on the floor.
Ressa verified with a look that no one was in earshot and asked quietly, "Bai, what's going on with you? Is something wrong? You've been acting really odd the last few tendays, and some of my staff are downright scared to bring you files."
"I'm sorry if I've yelled at you," he muttered downwards at the floor.
Ressa knit her brows at him. "Not so much at me," she observed. "But I did think we were friends, and something is clearly bothering you a lot. Is it something I can help you with?"
Bai ignored the opening in the conversation, hunching his shoulders miserably and glaring at the offending tiles by his feet. When the lift finally squeaked to their floor, he was shouldering into it before the doors were even fully open. Ressa waited a breath, then walked in behind him. Bai turned the control dials with more force than necessary.
Ressa sighed, realizing that this attempt to get Bai to talk was failing as surely as her previous tries. "I don't exactly trust this thing," she admitted, as it lurched into motion. It was a peace-offering, neutral conversation, and Bai took the offer.
"It's perfectly safe," he assured her, staring at the door that had closed behind her. "There are redundant safety features and these have been installed into major offices all over the Empire with no major accidents."
"It's still a swinging box in a very deep shaft," Ressa protested. "And what do they count as a 'major' accident?"
"I'm sure that-" Whatever reply Bai was ready to supply was lost suddenly when the floor of the lift jolted beneath them and there was a raucous squeal of metal on metal. Ressa was aware of her impulse to step closer to Bai in alarm, and maintained her position with willpower as the lift ground to a halt. They had just enough time to look at each other in alarm before the gas lights went out with a little pop.
There was a moment of silence, then Bai's gruff voice: "Irony. Remind me to fire the maintenance crew to a man." Ressa tried to define the undertone to his voice and failed.
"It sounded a little like train brakes," Ressa offered, then wished she hadn't. Mechanics had always been one of her weakest subjects, and she didn't want to look stupid in front of the license master.
He agreed, "It did. The emergency brake system must have been engaged."
"I didn't know this thing had an emergency brake system," Ressa said inanely. The darkness seemed oppressive, and she found that it bothered her more than she expected.
She heard his gesture rather than seeing it. "It shuts the gas off, too."
"Oh." Ressa fumbled for a better response. "I suppose that's a good safety feature."
There was an odd rustling noise, and she recognized that he was groping along one panel of the wall. "There's a pull-cord to let the maintenance room know that there's someone in here," he explained, just as she was deciding to ask. "They'll get this thing moving again shortly." There was a click of a hatch opening and the sound of moving parts.
"How are you supposed to know it's there in the dark?" Ressa asked in exasperation. "What if you hadn't been here?"
"You aren't supposed to take the lift without someone who has the proper training and license," Bai said severely.
"I did try to take the stairs," Ressa protested, stung by his tone.
"Then we're lucky I was here," he snapped.
There was a moment of quiet that went just a hair too long and Ressa admitted, "I'm glad you were."
That invited an even longer moment of dark silence and Ressa had to call on all her training not to fidget.
"I would never have found the call-cord," she added at last, just as Bai muttered something that might have been "Sorry."
Ressa wasn't going to ask him to repeat it, so she just offered peacefully, "How long do you think it will be before they get us out?"
Bai grunted, and Ressa heard the sound of moving parts again before the hatch clicked shut. "It shouldn't be long," he said, gently.
Ressa wondered if the dark made him as uncomfortable as it did her, and she had to stop herself from automatically moving closer for comfort again. Her own comfort, she recognized.
When the movement started, relief was the first reaction, then, almost instantly, was followed by terror as the motion followed no mechanical direction, only gut-wrenching waves that caused the lift to swing wildly. Something falling hit the roof of the little enclosure with a clatter, followed by something smaller, and the rumble of the building moving around them was momentarily deafening.
This time, Ressa could not stop herself from staggering across the swaying floor to Bai, and she was met by his own outstretched arms. They were crouched together just ticks later when the earthquake passed, and the lift's swings began to dampen.
"Frass me," Bai said, his fingers tight on Ressa's arms. Their heads were very close together; his breath stirred Ressa's hair by her ear, and her own hands were probably leaving bruises on his upper arms.
She drew in a trembling breath. "Sweet license of life," she agreed. "Of all the places I never wanted to be stuck in an earthquake."
"I am never riding in this thing again," Bai agreed.
They unlatched from each other cautiously, sorting out their limbs with some chagrin.
"It sounded like a bad one," Ressa said quietly, now at arms-length. Letting go was difficult; she was shaking from adrenaline and fear, and Bai seemed like the last real thing in the surreal blackness of the lift. She could smell the sweat off of both of them, though the temperature was actually quite chilly. She was grateful now that she had put a touch of perfume on that morning.
"Uh-huh," Bai agreed with a grunt, drawing away.
There was no conversation as Ressa got her breath under control again, and the nervous energy dissipated to leave an empty exhaustion in its wake. After a few attempts at inane conversation, she gave up, and sat down against one of the lift walls, facing what she hoped was the door. She was so turned-around she wasn't even sure anymore, and her legs were still shaking.
After a long moment, she heard Bai sit down beside her, felt his hand grope over to find her and then settled himself the exact polite distance from her in the darkness.
"This isn't how I'd planned to spend my evening," Ressa confessed.
There was a tension to this silence that caught Ressa by surprise, explained when Bai said curtly, "You had an appointment with your railcar driver?"
Pieces fell into place. Bai had always been attracted to her. At first, it had been a nuisance, too similar to the previous license master's lecherous attitude towards her. But Bai, unlike his predecessor, had always been strictly professional, carefully friendly, and, when she had responded in kind, they had settled into a perfect balance that bordered on affectionate. Now, they worked together like the steamworks of the city, always aware of each other, keeping the licensing office moving forward with fluid efficiency.
A smile that Ressa couldn't help spread over her face. Was it possible he had a crush on her? Was he jealous of Yeff? It was the most adorable idea Ressa had had in a tenday, and some devil in her made her scoot over and test her theory by pressing up next to him. "I'm cold," she said softly, which was the truth; the terror sweat had chilled her.
Bai froze; Ressa could feel the tension in his shoulders, and heard him swallow. At once, she felt terrible for her manipulations, and her desire to put him at ease overwhelmed her amusement at his predicament. After only a moment of consideration, she lay her head on his shoulder. If she treated this as normal, and pretended complete comfort with it, he would too, she hoped. She forced her muscles to relax and said gently. "I hope they get us out soon. I hate the darkness."
It wasn't a lie, and it was an effective gambit, putting him into the role of protector. She felt him relax a tick, and, after a moment, he even put an arm around her. "It will be alright," he promised, a rumble of comfort that Ressa felt mostly through his shoulder. "There's a flag in the maintenance room already, and it's standard procedure to check the lifts in the event of an earthquake." She was surprised by how much his comfort actually worked on her. He was warm, too.
"Do you think there's much damage?" Ressa asked. "Did any of the file stacks came down, I wonder?"
"It's only paper," Bai said with a hint of a shrug in his shoulder. "Nothing that will break."
Neither of them mentioned the possibility of fire, though it occurred to Ressa suddenly, and she wondered if Bai had thought of it, too. Trapped here, there was no likely escape for them in that event, and suddenly her desire for his comfort was not at all feigned. She couldn't contain the shiver of fear that she felt, and Bai's arm squeezed tighter around her.
"It's going to be alright," he promised, voice very quiet and near her ear. "Nothing will happen to the licensing office on my watch."
Strangely, Ressa believed him. He had an unexpected, dogged faith in the Empire's licensing system, and she continued to be surprised by how many times his trust in people and his belief in the law were rewarded.
She felt guilty again, for trying to make him uncomfortable, and wished she could warn him: Don't fall in love with me.
They could never be together, even if she did feel the same way, not without changing everything that made them comfortable together and giving up the job she loved. Ressa was used to handling crushes; she had always attracted a certain amount of that kind of attention, and she had learned to flash a rueful smile and let them down easily. She didn't usually feel the need to press the issue, and a few gentle and apologetic smiles was usually the only reminder of distance she needed to give; her otherwise professional demeanor and mothering attitude tended to dampen any lingering, unprofessional feelings.
Now, curled up against Bai in a staggeringly unprofessional fashion, she regretted pushing the issue and was all-over grateful that it hadn't backfired. He was relaxing against her, his hammering heartbeat under her ear steadied and slowed, and the ease she had feigned earlier became natural. "I expect to get vacation hours on my time record," she said with amusement. "This counts as work time!"
Bai's chuckle rumbled in his chest. "We should make the most of the time, then," he said with mock severity. "You can give me your years end file room report."
Ressa laughed back. "It will be incomplete," she cautioned. "I don't know what kind of chaos my files are in right now! We may have to put the stacks back up, after that rumble, and I may have to adjust the work budget to refile any portions that got mixed up."
"I supposed you will insist on more earthquake proof shelving, if that's the case," Bai said with a sigh. "You're always on about safest and most modern things."
"Safest, not necessarily the most modern," Ressa reminded him. "I was not in favor of this thing." They had always had an lift for moving heavy files between levels, but one designed for people had seemed a waste of space and an excuse for people not to get enough exercise using the stairs.
"Sound advice, apparently." She heard his head tip back and thump against the wall of the lift. "Gods of the Purists, I hate years end. So much frassing paperwork."
"It's not all bad," Ressa said cheerfully. "There's new theatre being released, at least. Our Lalya's Dini is likely to be a runaway star."
"I hope the performance is actually good," Bai groused good-naturedly. "And they haven't ruined their budget on the media circus centered around Lalya's gender-change."
"Media circus!" Ressa laughed.
"It's damned unnerving seeing the twice-life-sized poster of my properties license manager in a dress along theatre row."
"I think it's romantic," Ressa insisted. "And maybe it will serve to get the laws in Affamarg changed once people realize how ridiculous it is to keep marriage restricted to one man and one woman."
Bai sighed, and his arm around Ressa's shoulder squeezed in a little, a gesture she suspected was unconscious. "I suppose we can hope that," he agreed.
"Anyway, the performance should be good," Ressa said peacefully. "Dini's troupe has only put on top-notch shows, and I expect this one will be amazing. They've certainly spared no expense in the promotions, and I can't wait to see the opening."
He started slightly. "You're going to the opening? Olarali said they've been sold out since the day the performance was announced; she was lucky to get us a pair of seats together."
"Yeff got us a set last tenday," Ressa said softly. She hadn't realized they were sold out, and wondered if that explained his unusual nervousness when he had invited her.
"Scalpers," Bai grumbled. "Black market re-sale."
Ressa bristled. "I doubt it," she said defensively. "Yeff isn't the type to buy black market items."
There was a moment of silence, and Bai asked quietly, "You quite like him, don't you."
Ressa's heart ached for him, and she wondered if he knew how much he was revealing in the plaintive tone of his voice. Oh Bai, she wanted to tell him. Don't be so foolish. "I do," she said aloud, voice carefully warm. "He's terribly sweet and funny, and except for his awful taste in artwork, we get along famously."
Above them, a voice echoed down the lift shaft. "Hey, there! Anyone in there?"
They scrambled apart and got to their feet, immediately crying out in validation.
"License Master Bai? Who's that with you?"
"Head of Files, Ressa!" he called up for her before she could.
"Ah, we'll get you two out soon!" the voice promised. "Just got a bit of jam in the mechanicals room! Looks like someone reset your alarm flag, and the brake system got rattled by the earthshake we had! You need anything for a while?"
"We're fine," Bai assured. "Just get us the frass out of here!"
"Aye, Citizen! We're working on it!" Footsteps and the rumble of some kind of cart marked their departure, and the darkness seemed more oppressive and cold for their absence.
Without Bai's arm around her, Ressa felt more chilled; all the comfort and intimacy of their conversation had been lost to the interruption, and she was at a loss over what to do. She wrapped her arms around herself. If there had been light enough to ensure not running into each other, she might have paced. She heard Bai lean against one of the walls with a thump.
After a time, she sat down again, hugging her arms around her knees for warmth, and after a few moments, Bai slid down his wall, opposite from her, this time.
The silence became punctuated by the distant sounds of cursing, and the clanging of equipment, and after a very, very long time, the shudder of the lift itself. Ressa remained seated, though she heard Bai rise to his feet with a grumble.
"Bai," she said haltingly, as the lift jerked hopefully upwards and immediately stopped with another squeal of brakes. She wasn't sure what to say, or how to say it, but wanted somehow to reassure him. She rose to her feet as there was more distant raised voices, and the grind of some equipment through the walls in the shaft with them. "Whatever it is..." she said quietly, emboldened by the darkness. "Whatever is bothering you so much, it will work out," she promised. "I know you don't want to talk about it..." ...not with me, she added in her head. "But you'll figure it out," she assured him.
"Aye. That I will," he agreed reluctantly.
"You've always been very sensible," Ressa pressed gently.
"Not always," he rumbled in denial.
Ressa found a chuckle in her chest. "Alright," she agreed warmly. "Not always. But you will be," she said firmly. "And you'll stop being so difficult with the other staff. It makes it much harder to get my work done when my clerks are crying because you've yelled at them."
Bai managed his own laugh in return. "Fine," he said with a hint of iron. "I'll keep the yelling to a minimum." She rewarded him with a smile, then remembered that he couldn't see it.
The lift whined then, and there was the grating sound of the brakes releasing as it swung up on its cables again. Ressa staggered for the wall again, and held onto the handrail anxiously as it completed the rest of its ascent to the next floor and swung doors open to the dim cavern of the un-lit second floor lobby.
"Good," she said, once her feet were on solid floor again, and she smiled carefully at Bai's disheveled face again. "And just so it's clear, I will not be traveling in the personnel lift again anytime soon."
He barked a laugh at that. "I think I'll join you in taking the stairs," he agreed.