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Blackrail   1521.01.06  
Creators: Ellen Million (Writer)
Jarl sends his first blackmail demand to Bai.
Posted: 09/17/12      [No comments yet] ~ 2116 words.

"She was sighted leaving the house not much later, with the brother. They had a lively conversation to the cablecar station, and we're assuming that she took the cablecar to her own housing from there."

Jarl ran a thoughtful finger along the spine of the book before him. "I hadn't planned on the brother," he said darkly.

"You should have," the informant said off-handedly, and Jarl wondered if he understood exactly how dangerous such a statement of judgment could be. Jarl had killed for lesser insults. "Twins, you know. Always up in each others business."

"Are you familiar with the works of Rumutu?" Jarl asked mildly, instead of taking him to task.

The informant raised an eyebrow. "I've heard of him," he said with interest. "He did all those unlicensable experiments on orphans and such, right? Early last century?"

Jarl opened the book, smiling over the title page. "Yes. The government gave him unlicensed babies and orphaned children, as well as control of a prison and access to asylums, and paid him a rich salary to use science to unlock all the mysteries of brains and behavior. He poked at all the darkest sides of human nature, using sensory deprivation, abuse and neglect to see how development occurred at its most basic levels. Then, years into his research, the schools decided that the program was immoral, destroyed every book that he had published, and defamed his name." He turned the book so that the man across the desk could see the page it was open to. "This is one of the only remaining books, except for a copy in the library at Faajaffug that is reserved for Science Leaders only."

"Is that his signature?" Astonishment colored the other man's voice.

"It is," Jarl confirmed, spinning the book back around. "It cost me a small fortune to find this, and the fine if I were caught with it would be worth more than your salary for life, to say nothing of the black mark on my license."

The informant whistled, impressed.

"There's an interesting section on twins," Jarl continued. "As well as looking at existing twins in society, he separated several at birth, giving one the best of everything and the other the worst. It's a fascinating look at how the environment shapes a personality, and how we are a product of more than simply our flesh and blood. It is amazing how pervasive subtle abuse can be, and how much control can be maintained with simple reminder of inequalities."

"You want us to start leaning on the blind brother?" the informant guessed, missing the point entirely.

Jarl stifled his sigh. "No, leave him alone for now. We'll do some investigation and bring him into the picture later, if we need to, but we don't need him complicating things if we don't have to. The family is... influential and we don't want to agitate that hornet's nest more than absolutely necessary. Subtlety is required here; you don't get wine by crushing the entire vine."

The man looked disappointed. "I've got the statements you wanted," he said, putting them on the desk.

"These are the only copies of their statements?" Jarl verified. "The licence master gave the alibi for the woman?"

"Indeed. Just like we expected, he claimed she was with him the whole night."

"And her statement?"

"You were right." The informant sounded impressed. "She refused to go along with that, and gave a full, detailed statement regarding the actual events of the night, right up to not remembering a large chunk of the appropriate time. We even have ink handprints that show the wounds on her hands. They can be compared to her handprints at any later time."

Jarl smiled, real pleasure a welcome warmth in his chest. "The license master renowned for his truthfulness lies and the virginal whore stays to the truth." It was always rewarding to guess the outcome of subtle pressures; people were complex and Jarl loved nothing quite as much as finding their weak points and pressing, to make them dance to his own tune. He suspected that he would have gotten along famously well with Rumutu. "It's time," he said with satisfaction. "Send the first demand."

# # #

"...We'll have that portion of the project operating on the first tenday of Romimev."

Denel fell quiet, and Bai suddenly realized that he had lost track of her statement somewhere along the way. He flipped to the next page of questions he had to ask and scanned the material they needed to cover, trying to mask his momentary lapse. "And... er... you've got the transport licensing bundled in here, too?"

Denel gave him a puzzled look, but her voice was mild. "Yes, the device is already built in Tifiranir and we'll be moving the time crystals by rail, with a team of Science Masters. The transport licensing is covered by the section on page seventeen, with the safety measures we'll be taking to ensure that the time crystals are protected during transit."

"Are these really the measurements on these crystals?" Bai asked in awe, caught by one of the numbers. "They're enormous!"

Denel gave a slow smile. "Record breaking," she said with a rare twinkle in her eye. "Each one is more than a foot across."

"And you really think this thing is going to work?" Bai studied her face, taking note of the expressions that crossed it. Sometimes, in licensing interviews, you could skim as much from the face of the person being interviewed as you could from the words they said.

The newly-robed science master nodded confidently. "Oranaan says the machine is sound and will produce as much energy as two good-sized steam plants with a fraction of the coal input."

"And you?" Bai pressed. "I didn't ask Oranaan's opinion, I asked yours."

Denel started at that, and looked less certain. "I do," she said, after a moment of thought. "All of the math checks out, and the preliminary tests at smaller scale all match the predictions perfectly."

Bai pressed, "Will it be unsafe in any way?" That was the most important thing he needed to know.

She shook her head firmly at that. "I think the precautions we're taking are ample," she said without hesitating.

Bai smiled at her then, and picked up his approval stamp. "It's no surprise to find that everything is in order," he said cheerfully. "Your justification forms are always top notch. You've already convinced the technical license manager and the travel manager, I trust that they ran your math again and agree with your safety measures." He pressed the seal into the spaces waiting beside their signatures and added his own scrawl, paging through to repeat the process in six other places, initial two statements and add a neat note about the date and results of the interview on the bottom of the last page. "I might even take some time off to come for the demonstration! I have a little vacation time left."

As he passed the folder across the desk to her for her own signature, he added, "And I hear congratulations are in order! Your husband is now the youngest member of the Council, and that's no small thing!"

Denel's smile chilled several degrees but didn't waver as she signed the last line. "Thank you," she said with perfect politeness that didn't entirely mask her discomfort. "It's a great honor."

Bai might have pressed the matter, as friend, rather than license master, but there was a swift rap at the door, and it swung open to reveal Ressa, with a handful of folders and several folded gray rags. Her expression of careful neutrality spread to surprise. "Denel," she said with a warm smile. "The interview flag wasn't up outside the door, or I wouldn't have interrupted."

"We're just finishing," Bai said, hoping he didn't sound as flustered as he felt. "We'll need a fast-track on this approval package. Several travel licenses, a dangerous materials transport license and an operation permit."

Ressa traded her the approval folder for the papers she was holding, and Denel stood, clearly seeking escape. "Thank you, License Master," the science master said shyly; she often got quiet when there was more than one person in the room, and she only knew Ressa a little. "Clerk."

"Will you be joining us at Alikara's charity ball next tenend?" Bai asked, possibly with more joviality than was required.

Denel nodded. "We're not leaving until early the following tenday, so Jerumal and I are planning to attend. I'll see you there."

"I look forward to it," Bai said.

Denel nodded, and escaped as quickly as politeness permitted, and closed the door behind her as she slipped out.

Ressa remained. "These justification forms-" she said, just as Bai said, "There's been no mention-"

There was an awkward moment where they each tried to defer, and the head of files finally sat down across with him with a sigh. The perfect lines of her face looked drawn, and Bai could see the stress and grief in her eyes.

"There's nothing in the gray rags," Bai said, as kindly as he could.

"There's plenty in the gray rags," Ressa disagreed, and she was right. But everything in the rags was about the Railrage Murders - splashy headlines and horrified speculation. There wasn't so much as a mention of her name, or Bai's. "This isn't over," she said softly. "I don't know who did this or what they want, but they want something, and they're going to come asking for it, eventually."

"Mmm, hmmm."

Bai did his best not to squirm, but Ressa's eyes narrowed. She sat straighter in the chair and gave him the look she reserved for filing clerks who weren't sure where they'd put an important document. "Or have they asked for something?" she guessed. "Blackmail?!"

Bai ran nervous fingers through his short hair and adjusted his glasses on his nose. "It came this morning," he confessed. "A demand and a sprig of border chicory dyed black. But it's not what I expected."

"Not money?"

"Not a single coin. Just approval on a justification form for a transport license that I probably would have approved anyway, and two invitations to my sister's ball."

Ressa blinked in the same surprise that Bai had felt. "Invitations to a ball?" she said skeptically. "All this for invitations to a party?"

Bai scowled at her. "I doubt this will be the end of it," he said crossly.

Ressa scowled back, "I didn't say it would be."

There was a moment of silence between them, and Bai had to look down at the paperwork, not at her angry face. "This is my fault," he said between gritted teeth. "It's because of me that you were drawn into this at all."

"I make my own choices," she said, with unexpected gentleness. "You can't take the fault for them." When Bai dared to look up, the anger had evaporated, and her eyes were unfathomable. Grief, Bai guessed. To most readers of the gray rags, the Railrage Murders were just sensationalized violent stories, but Yeff had been her lover, and Bai suspected that she cared deeply for him.

"Come to Alikara's party," he said impulsively.

Ressa's brow furrowed. "I don't think that's-"

"To help figure out who's behind this," Bai added quickly. "You and Urti. Come as guests and see if we can't spot the two who look like they don't belong."

Ressa was quiet long enough that Bai thought she was going to refuse, then nodded. "It would help to be able to do something," she agreed. "What was the justification form for?"

He fished it out of a pile to his right and passed it to her. "Just transport of some cheap trade goods to Tifirf. I'm not sure it would have made it to my desk, it would have been so simple to have it approved by legal channels. It doesn't even waive inspection."

"Is it traceable to a citizen license?"

Bai shook his head. "No. It was a generic license, the kind that would be passed to a handy guild apprentice, not one tied to a specific person."

Ressa's look of frustration matched his own. "Bai-"

"We can't-"

"It's just-"



Silence between them was as awkward as conversation had become; the easy affection that they had shared for so long felt unraveled.

Ressa rose to leave, and Bai let her go without comment, bending back to the pile of paperwork he had to work through. As he sourly stabbed a pen at an offending form, he wondered if there was any chance of ransoming back their friendship. There was no price he wouldn't pay for that.

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Characters Featured:
Ressa, Denel, Bai,

Story collections:
Working for It
Closing the Score
All Southern Stories
Working for It

Follow the Timeline
(These stories may be unrelated)
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The Lichenwold Crossing (Part 6 of 8)
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The Lichenwold Crossing (Part 7 of 8)

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