“Business as Usual”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright September 4th, 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.
Fest leaned back in his chair. His cup hit the table with a heavy, pewter clank. The raucous throng erupted in cheers.
A server jumped up on the table.
“We have a winner!”
Nathanius smiled, regarding the riotous scene with cool calm as he nursed a cup of brandy. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what they were carrying on about, nor that he didn’t appreciate the sentiment; he’d just never been one for wild parties. He was a man of quiet appreciation. It was better—in his mind—to nurture expensive taste. Quality over quantity. Substance over volume. He wasn’t sure when he’d acquired the preference, but he suspected it was early on. His father used to work with the insiders of the underworld, and while he was never highly ranked, his business often brought them into contact with wealthy men and women. As a child, Nathanius was brought along for the ride. His father’s superiors drank expensive booze, ate luxurious food, kept professional company for pleasure, and wore silken clothes that flowed like water. Nathanius always wanted a piece of that. So had his father.
This was the closest either of them had ever come.
Business was good. The smugglers were bringing a fortune into Sylarea: gemstones and gold from the mountains and the hills, grain from the west prairies, fish and molluscs from the southern shoals; even spices from the distant jungles to the south and west were making their way up the trade lanes and into the surreptitious holds of their free-flagged ships. The pirates knew their business. The rich markets of Gelande were pouring into the kingdom of the elves, and he and Fest were making more money than they could spend. Even their modest cut was more than enough to fill their swelling purses to the seams.
Nathanius smiled. Pretty soon his purse would be too small. He’d have to get a coffer. He’d never had a coffer before, but in a strange way the money wasn’t the point. It felt good to be successful. He could make things happen. He knew people and people knew him. He was no longer an unknown, and he didn’t have to feel like just another small-time crook.
Fest came over, grinning.
“You should join the party.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“No, thanks. It’s not really my area.”
Fest clapped him on the shoulder.
“Come on. Don’t be pretentious. These are your people.”
Nathanius sipped his brandy.
“I don’t think so.”
Fest pointed to a man across the room.
“That’s the captain of the Bawdy Gull. He came in this morning with a load of desert ambergris. Twenty-five tons.”
Fest did some math in his head, squinting up at the ceiling.
“It’s worth twelve thousand cords in Gelande? Here in Sylarea it’s probably…thirty-thousand stersi?”
Nathanius took another sip of his drink.
“Sounds about right.”
Fest leaned in expectantly.
“Well, do you think he didn’t take a risk? Do you think he doesn’t deserve your respect?”
“I do respect him.”
“You don’t look it. Come on. Go and say hello. Get to know these people. It’s no good keeping to yourself.”
Nathanius took a breath and a second look out the room. It was filled to bursting with shouting men and women still crusted with salt from the sea. Laughter roared until the music was drowned out, and drink and spittle sprayed into the air like spume over a windward rail.
He finished his drink and set the cup aside.
“I have to go over the books. Lot of people to pay tomorrow.”
“Then do it tomorrow!”
He moved in to pull him into the crowd. Nathanius pulled back.
“It should be done tonight.”
There was a long pause. Fest stepped back.
“All business, huh.”
“Something like that.”
“Have it your way.”
Nathanius bowed slightly.
Fest finished his drink and turned back to the party.
“Just be careful. You know what they call a leader with no one to lead?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“Just a guy taking a walk.”
Fest strode back into the crowd, shouting for ale. His small form disappeared into the throng. Nathanius took a final look at the captain across the room. He was a tall man with a short, brown beard. His moustache had been carefully sculpted into a pair of tightly waxed coils. A pair of barmaids stood on either side of him, feigning coquettish interest as they emptied his purse and filled his gullet with wine. Nathanius puffed out a quiet, disdainful breath. Fest was right. He didn’t respect him, but the captain didn’t require his respect. Like everyone else in the room, he was in it for the money. That was all he was going to get.
Nathanius left the bar and returned to his apartment down the street. He sat at his desk. There was a hidden drawer under the centre surface. He opened it and pulled out a brown leather booklet. Like any organized criminal, he rarely wrote anything down, but as so many had realized before him, it was virtually impossible to avoid pen and ink entirely. The folio contained a list of aliases. Nathanius had memorized the true identities. He used the book as a primer to keep his figures straight.
Once, in his early teenage years, one of his father’s better-connected friends had waxed lyrical over how hard it was too keep their network paid up. By the time he was finished his tirade, Nathanius’s younger self had been utterly convinced that every government official in Gelande was somehow on the take. He’d been pleasantly surprised to find that the bureaucracy of Sylarea was equally susceptible to the promise of a little extra coin.
He had them organized by city. Llay was easy. It was a small town and he knew everyone involved. Getting cargo ashore was a simple matter. It was getting the goods overland that necessitated all the song and dance. There were highway patrols to consider. They had to be paid. The guard posts had to be paid. And because not every post along direct routes were open for business—as it were—every tavern keep and hotel manager along the many circuitous routes the shipments took across the country earned a modest share to keep them from dropping a note to the local tax collector for a reward.
Then the goods reached their destination.
Once they arrived there were tax men, customs officers, city guards, and local officials; not to mention regional gangs of thugs and petty criminals, any one of whom were capable of bringing down the whole enterprise if they didn’t get their end.
Nathanius wasn’t intimidated by the complexity. It was a simple question of organization. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny bronze key. Unlocking the deep second drawer of the desk, he withdrew a sturdy wooden box and a handful of tiny black cloth bags. Consulting the anonymized ledger, he began to deposit a carefully counted stack of coins into each.
A.k.a. Blackbird ~ one percent ~ Mydyle Post Box 6
A.k.a. Ribbons ~ ten stersi ~ Mydyle Inn
A.k.a. Hoofbeat ~ one-half percent ~ Hyl Crossroads
There were ten more entries after those. They’d stopped using independent traders early on. They couldn’t keep the payoff deliveries straight along the route. Too many mistakes. Too many close calls. Too many follow-ups to pay people for delays and for their trouble. All the wagon men were on the payroll now.
The ambergris was headed all the way to the eastern border to a town called Sephyl, where a local perfume house would take delivery and send the wagon back with the final payment in a locked, warded, iron-bound chest. It would come all the way back to Llay, where he and Fest would be waiting with the key and the dispelling incantation to unseal it.
When the bags were filled Nathanius locked the money back up and stashed the ledger. He put the payoffs into his pack. He would deliver them to the driver himself in the morning. The shipment would go out before dawn.
He apologized inwardly to Fest. Schmoozing pirates and wild parties might be fine for some, but at least one person needed to keep their head and mind the store.
Nathanius snuffed out his lamp and went to bed.
As it turned out, dawn was to arrive sooner than he thought.
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