Trahmsi was exhausted. The last few days had been non-stop strike and counter-strike as she struggled to contain the effects of Rüktiv’s schemes against her and her… well, she couldn’t call them friends, at least not all of them. Some, like Sri and Takíza, were dearer to her than that, and it was a struggle to maintain a sense of balance when she thought one of them was in danger. It had been stupid to lash out at Rüktiv when he threatened Sri, and if she hadn’t been caught off-guard she wouldn’t have done it. That slip would cost her dearly in dalán and favors, which she would be paying for months.
It was not all bad, however. Takíza and Tábudh were in safe hands. Rüktiv had disgraced himself in front of witnesses in the Spiral Arena, and his influence was on the wane. And he had revealed that he had been building his own network of contacts, something she’d suspected but never been able to prove. Now these were coming out into the open as Rüktiv, thinking only of vengeance, gambled everything on one throw of the dice. Foolish, but there was always the possibility that he might actually do some damage. She had to keep moving.
She was back at the house now, which was empty and dark. Even the jugánu worms slept. Earlier she’d dismissed the servants, privately telling those she trusted that she would compensate them well if they returned when all this had died down. And she’d freed the slaves, sending them to Amle at the House of Blown Crystal Reeds. Amle would find something for them to do, she had contacts all over the city. It would cost her, but it was something she’d been wanting to do for years. Slavery was a dirty business.
Why was she here, exactly? It wasn’t as though she kept anything of value in her room, or indeed anywhere on the premises. She moved restlessly through the halls, opening doors and peering in at the empty rooms, a nearly silent spectre in her grey cloak and hood. She knew she should get back on the streets. There were plenty of things she should be doing, but she was so tired. Her mind drifted, and when she was aware of her surroundings again she was in the library. On a table was a bowl of fruit and a large heavy book with a carved wooden cover. On it two figures, carved in silhouette, looked back over their shoulders, poised to run. From behind them came a dark cloud, which threatened to blot out the two moons in the sky. Trahmsi ran her gloved hand across the carving, tracing the same path as Krista had done two days before. Was it only two days? She shook her head, trying to clear it.
There was a cage of jugánu worms near the door. She placed that on the table, stroking the creatures until they gave out a soft blue-green light. She pulled a nearby chair up to the table and sank into it. With great care she opened the cover of the old book, turning over the first few pages until she reached the beginning of the story.
“Long ago, in a country far away, there lived two boys who were the best of friends…”
It was here that the dormouse Jita found her, sound asleep with her head cradled on her crossed arms. In her dreams she heard a voice call her name, at first softly, and then with increasing urgency. She came awake suddenly, springing off the chair and landing in a crouch, a crystal dagger in each hand. Jita stood in the doorway, trembling, holding up both hands to show his empty palms. He spoke quickly but clearly. “Mistress Trahmsi, it’s me, Jita. I came back to see if you needed any help.” She could see the relief in his face as she straightened and the daggers disappeared back into her cloak.
“Jita. What time is it? How long have I been asleep?” She cursed savagely and rubbed her face with both gloved hands, willing herself to alertness.
“The 19th Chime has just rung,” Jita said. “I have some news…” He hesitated, then hurried on. “I have heard that the guards are coming to arrest Master Krista and his friends in the morning.”
Trahmsi took a step towards him in surprise. “What? What are you talking about?” She was almost shouting. Jita took a step backwards, visibly shaken, and Trahmsi stopped in mid-stride. The jugánu worms let out an alarmed trill. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing herself to remain calm. “I’m sorry, Jita. I’m not going to hurt you. But these last few days have been upsetting, to say the least.”
Jita relaxed a little, though he still watched her carefully. “Yes, Mistress, and that’s the understatement of the year, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Trahmsi gave him a quick grin that was almost a grimace, and then turned serious. “Tell me what you’ve heard.”
“Mice get around, Mistress, as you know,” he said. She nodded at him to go on, trying not to show her impatience. “I have several cousins who work at the Magistrate’s palace. Cleaning, cooking, the usual. Well, ever since that fella Arjuna started asking questions about other Hardazi, we’ve been listening for any news of them, and —”
“Wait,” Trahmsi interrupted him. “Arjuna asked you to get him information about the Hardazi in Tiari?”
“Of course not, Mistress,” Jita said, seeming surprised by the question. “But he asked you, and he asked Master Dhuhaj over at House Víkpe, and Harthuk’s been asking too. So we made it our business to listen a little harder.”
Trahmsi stared at him for so long that the dormouse began to wring his hands. “I mean no offense, Mistress, but it’s what we do. Nobody notices mice, and we’re not very strong or very fast, and sometimes the only way to make sure you don’t end up in a bad place is not to be there at all. So we listen. Please Mistress, it’s just our way.” Jita looked like he was about to cry, but he kept on talking. “That Harthuk, he’s a wonder, he is. High class mouse like that, but give him half an hour with some odds and ends and you’d never recognize him on the street. He’s got talent, that one. But the rest of us get by alright.” He looked at her anxiously, starting to tremble again.
Trahmsi let out another deep breath. “It’s alright, Jita. This is why I’ve never wanted mice in this house. Too many secrets that shouldn’t be told, and I — ”
This time Jita interrupted her. “Mistress Trahmsi, with all due respect, we mice can be loyal too. I have served here since before Mistress Teénna left, and I would no more tell your secrets than I would eat sweets out of your bare hands, begging your pardon. I’ve watched out for Mistress Takíza, haven’t I? And done as much as I could, though it’s little enough.” His voice was firmer now, and he stood a little straighter.
Trahmsi eyed him with new respect. “That you have, Jita, and I’m grateful. We’ll speak of this later, but right now —”
Jita started, recollecting himself. “Of course Mistress! As I was saying, we were listening for any news of the Hardazi. Well it seems that some bigshot Hardazi, an ambassador or something, has been talking to the Magistrate. Goes by the name of Jyoti. After that mess in the Spiral Arena yesterday, Master Rüktiv said a lot of things to a lot of people, and some of what he said was about Arjuna attacking his champion before the match. After he pulled that pistol on Master Krista —” here he stopped and spat on the floor. “It’s a disgrace, Mistress! Master Krista won that duel fair and square, nobody can say he didn’t. If Master Rüktiv knows what’s good for him, he’ll leave the city. Nobody will deal with him now.” The mouse looked both indignant and sad.
Trahmsi nodded, but said only “Go on, Jita.”
Jita sighed. “Well, nobody was much inclined to listen to his complaining, until this Jyoti put his hand in. So now the Magistrate’s guards are coming to arrest the whole lot for assault or some such nonsense. They’ll be at House Víkpe right after morning prayers.”
“So soon?” Trahmsi was quiet for a minute or two as she thought it through. Her right hand stroked the open book as if it were a favorite pet.
Finally she threw back her hood and spoke. “I need you to go to House Mosár. I know it’s late, but tell Teénna…” her voice trailed off. Jita waited, shifting from foot to foot. “Tell Teénna that I know we have not always been friends, but Krista and Takíza need her help. If Mosár can get them on a skyship tonight, they can be out of here before the guards come for them in the morning. Tell her about the guards, just like you told me. Will you do that?”
Jita nodded. “Yes, Mistress.”
Trahmsi snorted. “None of that Mistress nonsense! Call me Trahmsi. We’re going to be working together, you and I, and I’m sure Harthuk would be laughing in his sleeve if he knew it.” She smiled, but it did not reach her eyes. “And I don’t think Rüktiv is going to like that one bit.”
She picked up the book, cradling it carefully. “And now I should go. Did anyone see you on your way here?”
Jita shook his head. “I don’t think so, Mis— Trahmsi. But I asked a few cousins to keep watch just in case.”
“Alright. I’m leaving by the tunnel. You know about the tunnel, I presume?” Jita said nothing, but looked a bit uncomfortable. “Of course you do. I hope you haven’t used it?”
Jita looked startled. “Oh, no, Mistress! I know it goes to the gambling hall, but I would never use it!”
“Good,” she said. “See that you don’t. I’m pretty sure Rüktiv doesn’t know about it, but if he does, I don’t want you to get hurt.” She patted the book. “I have to get this to a safe place, and then I’m expect I’m going to be very busy. How can I get in touch with you?”
Jita considered. “I know a place where you can leave messages, will that do?” He described a bathhouse in the Trade Quarter, one that Trahmsi had passed by many times before.
Trahmsi nodded. “Perfect.” She fumbled in her cloak for a moment, and then drew out her gloved hand. “Pleasure working with you, Jita.” On her outstretched palm was a spiral pastry, decorated with red sugar, and wrapped in a bit of cloth. It was only a little squashed. Jita looked at the pastry, and then up at her. He picked it up, closed his eyes, and took a bite. After a moment he opened his eyes again, seemingly surprised to still be standing upright. Trahmsi smiled at him, a real smile this time, and said, “You’ll do just fine.” Then she turned and headed for the stairs.
Sandeep — Table of Contents — Muítal