“Profit and Loss”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright September 6th, 2018
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Nathanius sat on the edge of the bed.
Fest was across from him, idly examining the payoff bags on the desk.
The ambergris would be heading out in a few short hours. Nathanius would have preferred to wait until the state investigation had finished completely, but they didn’t have a choice. They’d already been forced to delay too long. If they didn’t leave tonight they would never make their delivery on time.
In the days following the fire the government had chosen to send in a team from the exchequer’s office in the capital. The destruction of the cutter had lit a fire under their ordinarily reliable bureaucratic complacency. The seas along the coast were filling up with pirate hunters, and the highways had been beaten flat by the hoof beats of the patrols. The cost of keeping their operation under wraps was beginning to mount. For the moment the local officials were still well paid and on board, but it was only a matter of time before someone cracked.
“We’re going to meet with them tonight at a crossroads outside of town.”
“Who’s going to be there?”
“The man the exchequer sent and his lieutenant. If you can reach an agreement, they’ll be able to keep the hounds off. We’ll pony up a patsy and everything will go back to normal.”
Nathanius grabbed his coat.
“And where do I come in?”
“You’re the brains of the outfit, right? You said as much yourself. No parties. No ties. All business.”
“I guess I did.”
Fest picked up the bags.
“You’ll need to contact our guy at customs. Bring him with you. I’ll take care of the shipment.”
Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
“You’re sure you can handle it? You’ve never done the handoff before.”
“Hey, it’s me.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Just get to that meeting. It might not be a bad idea to take some stersii with you as well.”
“A good-faith payment?”
Nathanius grabbed what he needed and went out. It was already night and the streets were empty. He made his way across town to the customs office, keeping to the alleys to avoid the street patrols. He and his contact would have to travel on foot across country to reach the meeting site. The roads would be too risky.
The arrangements were rushed, but Fest—true to his own fashion—had been loitering in the bars with the imperials for days. He was an excellent roper. If he was sure their man could be brought around, Nathanius was confident he could close the deal.
It was a simple question of coin.
Nathanius paced back and forth across the road. Their contact was late. The customs officer sat on the raised earth that bordered it, waiting.
“I wish you would stop that.”
Nathanius looked over at him.
“I can’t help it. They should be here by now.”
The man shrugged.
“Maybe they got held up.”
Nathanius gave him a flat look.
“You’re not worried.”
The man yawned.
“No, only tired. It’s the middle of the night.”
Nathanius scanned the darkness. There were only three roads heading out of Llay. Two of them followed the coast. The third ran out into the countryside before splitting into a network of branching spurs that ran to the inland towns. Despite his elvish vision, he couldn’t see far. The crossroads where they were standing was couched among these, nestled in the intersections of the farm country’s twisting web, deeply concealed by acres of tall wheat and fruiting barley. Fest had picked a good spot. Nathanius knew the roads by heart for a hundred miles, but no one unfamiliar with their organization would look for a meeting way out here.
The customs man yawned.
“Maybe they got lost.”
Nathanius continued squinting into the dark.
Something wasn’t right. There was a kind of vacuous tension in the air, the kind that always seemed to materialize when matters were about to take a bad turn.
Nathanius picked up his pack.
“Come on. We’re going.”
The customs man looked up.
“What if they come and we’re not here?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“We’ll sort it out later.”
The man shrugged and stood up.
“If you say so.”
They gathered their belongings and prepared to set off, back across country the way they’d come. Nathanius had one foot already in the verge when they saw a shadow coming up the road.
The customs officer pointed.
“It’s a wagon. They’re here.”
Nathanius stepped back into the road.
“Took them long enough.”
They waited. Nathanius watched as the vehicle drew closer. No one had any torches. Light would only draw attention. Nathanius was comforted by the fact that the vehicle appeared to be alone. A patrol would have been on horseback. Still, it didn’t look like an official transport.
“Maybe they borrowed a civilian cart.”
The customs officer wavered.
“They don’t look like soldiers. Maybe they’re out of uniform?”
Nathanius stared hard.
“I don’t know.”
It wasn’t until the wagon was close enough for the moonlight to reveal the driver’s face that Nathanius saw who it was.
The man raised an eyebrow.
The ambergris shipment. Nathanius rushed over.
“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be headed south along the coast. We paid a fortune to clear your route.”
The man shook his head, befuddled.
“Fest said plans had changed. He didn’t even give me the payoff bag. Said I was supposed to meet you and get it out here.”
Nathanius’s breath caught in his throat. The driver was one of their newer recruits.
He looked around, eyes darting across the field.
The customs officer gave a confused look.
“We’ve been set up.”
The fields around them erupted. Soldiers poured onto the road, blades drawn and flashing in the cold silver moonlight. The driver cracked the reins as arrows began to fly. He sped away, but a volley of arrows from up the darkness struck him in the shoulder and the neck. He leaned forward and fell from the seat. His body tumbled to the earth with a thump. Nathanius threw himself to the ground and covered his head.
The customs officer fell to the earth, stabbed through the heart. He coughed up a foam of blood and lay still. Quiet descended. Nathanius waited for the end.
It didn’t come.
A boot landed in front of his face. Nathanius looked up into the stern eyes of the exchequer’s envoy.
He sat up and resigned a long breath.
The man gave a grim nod.
“You’re under arrest.”
Fest came to see him in jail. It was the least he could do. Nathanius regarded him coldly through the iron bars of his cramped cell. The trial was already over. The local magistrate had seen to it personally; a little too personally in point of fact. The whole thing reeked. They’d thrown the book at him: smuggling, tax evasion, conspiracy, sabotage, burning of ships in port, and of course murder.
The halfling pirate leaned against the wall, nibbling on an apple.
“They’re going to exile you.”
Nathanius nodded silently.
Fest took a bite of the apple.
“They were going to hang you. I had to pull quite a few strings.”
He took another bite.
Nathanius didn’t answer right away. He already knew what had happened. Hell, Fest had explained it to him himself. He’d simply left an important detail: he was the patsy.
He only had one question.
Fest looked up.
“You heard me. Why? It wasn’t necessary. We could have handled it.”
The halfling leaned up from the wall.
“I did handle it. They were open to the money. They took it almost the minute I offered it, but the imperial exchequer wasn’t going to accept failure on the part of his investigators. The case needed a dramatic conclusion. You know, something flashy they could show off to the public. We had to give up someone high in the ranks.”
“And you picked me?”
“Should have made more friends.”
Nathanius retreated to the back of the cell and sat down on his straw bed. Fest was an idiot.
“You’ll never be able to run this organization without me. You don’t have the contacts.”
Fest reached into his jacket.
“Oh, you mean these contacts?”
The leather folio emerged from his coat.
“You really should hide your personal possessions more cleverly. I mean, come on. A hidden compartment in your desk? Who did you think you were dealing with?”
Nathanius stared at the floor.
“I thought I was dealing with a friend.”
Fest smiled and took another bite of apple. He answered with his mouth full.
“I got your sentence reduced, didn’t I?”
“Don’t take it personally. It’s a simple question of coin.”
Nathanius pointed at the book.
“That ledger is in code. You won’t be able to manage it by yourself.”
Fest stuffed it back into his jacket.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. The Water Road has some pretty sharp folks on the payroll these days, thanks to you. I’m sure one of them will be able to interpret your little system.”
He turned to leave. Nathanius ran to the bars and reached out, missing his sleeve by inches. He pressed his face against the iron.
“I will kill you if I ever see you again. I hope you know that.”
Fest gave a little smile and a shrug.
“But you won’t. Sorry, Nathanius, but this is the end of the road.”
The door at the end of the room groaned open.
Fest walked quietly away and went out.
Special Thanks To: