Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Bright Black Sea -- Free Again

It appears that Amazon in no once again price-matching The Bright Black Sea, (as of 1 Feb 2018) after I raised the price to $12.50. I'm happy. I guess it pays to be a little passive-aggressive. Some Day Days is still full price, but that is a very slow seller on Amazon, so I don't care about that.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Still Free (Except on Amazon)


Amazon is the only major ebook seller that requires ebooks to have a minimum price of $.99. They will, however, match the price of the books their competitors offer – at their discretion. For the most part they have matched the free price of my books. Some two years ago they decided not to price match The Bright Black Sea (then priced at $3.99), and in the six months before the release of Castaways of the Lost Star, I sold something like 10 copies. This month they have again decided not to price match both The Bright Black Sea, my “best seller” and Some Day Days, my slowest seller. While I would rather just give my books away, I’m cool with that, since they have, over the last nearly three years, kindly matched my free price (in the US). I can’t complain.

Now, if I could sell a copy a day, at $.99 I’d be very happy – that would put me in the upper 5 - 6 % of indie authors on sales volume. I’d accept half that sales figure. But below that, I think I could find a better use for my prices on Amazon.

I view the price of a book as a marketing decision. I chose FREE because I could “sell” a hundred times the books I could sell if I put a price on them, even as low as $.99. And I could get a hundred times the ratings and reviews, which I value. And although I’ve no intention of making a career of writing, if I was, I’d likely follow the same strategy – the Amazon strategy of losing money early to build a long term business. (Especially since it would be pocket change.) However, there are some people who think the price of a book is a self-awarded badge of excellence. If an author doesn’t charge money for their book, or very little, they think it is because the author doesn’t think highly of it. I really doubt that this is the case. You don’t publish something for everyone to read that you think stinks – no one needs that kind of grief. This snobbish attitude also extend to readers. I’ve come across postings on blogs were the readers of free books are disparaged, not worth a real author’s efforts. I don’t know how widespread this attitude, this misconception, is, but just in case it is widespread, I can now do something to address it. I can raise my list prices on Amazon.

So what should I charge for my books, if I want them to reflect my self-awarded badge of excellence? Prior to listing all of them at $.99, I had them at $1.99 for Some Day Days, $2.99 for A Summer in Amber, and $3.99 for The Bright Black Sea. These are standard indie-published prices. But… well, I think my books are better than the standard indie-published book, so if price reflects quality, I really should price them out of the common indie range. Right? $9.99 is the highest price one can set and still get Amazon’s 70% royalties, so most ebooks stay under that limit. However, big publishers charge between $12 and $15 or more for their new releases, and my books are certainly as good as theirs, so perhaps I’d best follow their lead and price my books in similar fashion. I can afford to turn a blind eye to the fact that pricing them over $9.99 will actually bring me less money because I know that they will actually bring me no money. So, with that thinking here is my new Amazon Price List, effective 1 Feb. 2018:

Some Day Days:        ebook $5.50    177 page trade paperback $9.00
A Summer in Amber:  ebook $8.50    276 page trade paperback $12.00
The Bright Black Sea: ebook $12.50  703 page trade paperback $25.00
The Lost Star’s Sea:   ebook $12.50  723 page trade paperback $25.00

All of the ebook versions will remain FREE in all the other stores, Kobo, iBook, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Hopefully Amazon will soon go back to matching their competitor's prices for all books. But that will be up to them.



Monday, January 22, 2018

Rust in the Dust


This is the last of the "story noses" I wrote over the summer. It's pretty much just a "info dump." The basic premise was much the same of the Velvet Night Islands -- a previous civilization has left artifacts behind. Most are just pieces of technology that the current civilization does not understand. In the story, one of the provinces is threatening civil war, though it is certain to be defeated, by the combined forces of the other provinces. So why does it seem to be pursuing this course? One suggestion is that they have uncovered a WORKING artifact from the previous civilization that will allow them to triumph. The heroes of the story set out to find this artifact, if it exists. The reason the story never got written is that I could not think of a way to, one, make it any different than a sort of intrigue/spy story -- they track down clues within the threatening province while trying to avoid capture, and two, what could this artifact be. I didn't want to do a GIANT ROBOT... I just came up short in the imaging department. I just could not come up with something to make it unique enough to bother writing.

I had several opening. In some the war had already began. But this is the only one I can find.

Note: As usual, this is a first draft, non proofread version.


Chapter 1 May 14



01
Twenty-seven books will not fill a wall of bookshelves, not even the wall of a very cozy dormer office under the rafters of Croft Hall, Wayscross University. This came as not a complete surprise to me. I had hoped, however, that by artistically spreading my twenty-seven books out across the shelves – displaying the larger volumes cover out – I might create the impression that the shelves were more filled than they actually were. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. Indeed, rather than disguising my scarcity of books, it seemed to emphasis the barrenness of the shelves – each book a lonesome cry of despair.
Stepping back to consider my options, I sent the coat tree teetering, saving it from crashing onto my desk with a desperate grab and an angry curse.
'I would think, Nies, that after seven years of travel up and down the Great Serpent you'd have accumulated enough rusty talismans, curiosities, nicknacks, keepsakes and lightprints to fill a little bookshelf like that,' said a once familiar voice from the open doorway behind me.
It had been all of those seven years since I'd last heard the voice of my best friend. Still, it had been seven years, so it was with both eagerness, and wariness, that I spun to greet her.
'Ash!'
She hadn't changed. Not too much. She was leaning on the door-frame, hands in the pockets of her long dark green traveling coat, with a rather shapeless felt hat at the back of her head. She stared down her long nose at me, took me in, and then leisurely withdrew her hand from the coat's pocket and extended it.
I took her cool hand in my own, and then, what the blue beyond, pulled her close and gave her a bear hug as well. She didn't resist, and may've even tapped me on the back once or twice herself with her free hand until I released her, to hold her at arm's length.
'It is wonderful to see you. I wrote you...'
'Six letters, I believe.'
'Five. Two to your Boulevard of Evening Blossoms address, two in care of the Ministry of Trade, and one to Hayvale. The sixth was to your father asking about you. He, at least, replied, if only to say that he was unable to help since you don't keep him any better informed of your whereabouts than I. He did, however, invite me down to Hayvale, with or without you, and I will certainly take him up on that. Hopefully with you. So why didn't you answer any of my letters?'
'I'm here.'
'You are indeed. I withdraw my complaint.' I said, gazing on her fondly. '
There are not likely all that many people in the world who can gaze on her fondly.
Ashra Bedoux, Baroness Roudorn is a hard person to be fond of. She is tall as I, though slimmer. Her face is long, with a wide mouth that naturally settles into a disapproving frown. She can, however, with very little effort, twitch into a condescending sneer. Back when I first knew her – when we were students – she often found it necessary to make that effort. She held her head in such a way that she could look down along her long, thin nose on you, regardless of your height, with unspoken contempt in her green eyes half hidden under lazy eyelids. Now, as then, she wore her chestnut colored hair very short. In her youth she could, and often did, dress and pass herself off as a boy, despite the fact that she holds male sex in contempt. Or perhaps because she does. By passing herself as a boy she may've been trying to show us what we should strive to be, given the possibilities of our sex. All in all, many people found her to be unpleasant and uncomfortable company. And yet, when she laughs, or even smiles, she's almost pretty – confidential, rather than condescending. She rarely smiles and hardly ever laughs.
Still, I've seen more than my share of those rare smiles and laughs, for as I said, she was my best friend throughout my university years. There were even a couple of years back then, when I was in love with her. Blame it on my youth.
I came to my senses. 'Come in, sit down… What am I thinking of?' I said, drawing her in to my new office.
'I have no idea. However, having found you, I shall now return to my room to sleep. It was a rough night passage from Litabay – no sleep at all. No sleep either on the rail carriages from Southarbor. I've taken a room at the Station Hotel. Hire some horses and pick me up there at four. We can ride out into the countryside and dine at one of the outlying inns.'
'I won't hear of that. I've a spare room in my digs. Let's get your bags. You'll stay with me.'
She shook her head. 'No. We must think of your new career. Your new colleagues will be watching you. You must choose your friends wisely. I'm not a wise choice…'
'Bosh!'
'Trust me. There are important people in the University who will remember me…'
'True, but they also remembered me as your boyfriend. That didn't seem to matter.'
'I'm sure they're hoping Sunset has knocked the foolishness out of you. You mustn't disillusion them. We'll ride in the countryside where we can talk freely without covert glances and wagging tongues.'
I didn't think she was right, but I wasn't going to win the argument. I never did. 'Well, we needn't hire horses. I have a new three-wheeler. We can take it on a long drive and dine far from the gossips. I'll pick you up at the station entrance.'
'A runabout? Was that mystery find of yours a King's Talisman that you can afford a runabout?'
'I'll tell you all about that find as we drive. It is the better part of seven years of unspent wages that allow me to purchase a small runabout, a Gough and Hardinge Four.'
' Did you go native and live off a game in log huts?'
'Mostly I lived in tents. However, the Institute provides all the necessities while you're in the field, so as long as you keep to the field and didn't gamble or keep an expensive mistress, you needn't touch your salary to live. I kept to the field. And now, with a free summer and a great deal of leave owed to me, I felt a GH 4 would allow me to get reacquainted with…'
'Civilization'
'Camalea, in any event.'
'Can you pilot a runabout?'
'I'm learning. It's not hard.'
'Never mind, I can. The station courtyard at four,' she said, and turned to go.
'Wait, let me get my hat (it had fallen on the floor) I'll walk you back to the station.'
She glanced back to serve me one of her sneers. 'Did nothing I said about gossips penetrate?'
I sighed. 'You're wrong. But we won't argue. At four then.'
She nodded, and slipped into the dark corridor. I stepped to the doorway to watch her walk down the dim lit corridor and disappear down the stairwell. Seven years and it seemed that nothing had changed. I was rather happy.


02
Baroness Roudorn selected me as her boyfriend five days after we had arrived at Wayscross for our first term. We both had digs in Tungstand Hall. She came to the univeristy to study economic history and I, arcaneology. I'd like to think that her interest in the economics of the Third Age (a field study that she was inventing), and mine in the arcane remains of the Three Lost Ages was the deciding factor, but I've never summoned the courage to ask her. I had a feeling, and still do, that her reasons, if she had any at all, were not very flattering, given the fact that she never made any secret of her tastes in lovers. She'd openly walk arm in arm, hand in hand with her girlfriends, her “sisters”, as she called them, regardless of how she dressed for the day – as a girl or as a boy. She once said that she needed n official boyfriend to give the masters of the University some small comfort – they could, if they cared to, dismiss the obvious by saying, “Be that as it may, she does have a boyfriend, you know, so...” Of course the fact that she was a young Avadorian Baroness may also have defused any scandal. Avadore Provence aristocracy are notorious for their free and easy ways in such matters so the young Baroness' flaunting of conventions could be viewed as merely the youthful indulgence of a headstrong, rebellious girl – a phase that would pass in time. The former may've been true, the later almost certainly wasn't. Unless she had changed in these seven years.
Still, somehow, despite my figurehead status, we grew close. With our shared interest in the Lost Ages, in their artifacts and what history could be pried out of dusty volumes written in Sumbarian, we grew to be in fact, the best of friends. I knew her only as a boy. A carefree, mischievous boy, who, with the self-assurance of an Avadorian Baroness – maintained that the rules simply didn't apply to her. She carried me off on many an ill-advised adventure during our five years at Wayscross. Art galleries were far more enjoyable when you had them to yourself – at midnight. The museums so much more interesting when you could rummage through their basement storage rooms, after closing hours. The dockland dives of Southarbor, offered far more authentic dinja music than anywhere else. Their questionable clientele merely added the spice that the music needed to be fully appreciated. Or so she claimed. To this day I never hear dinja music without a shiver snaking up my spine.
There was also a bright, far less risky side to being her pal – an idyllic month of deep summer spent in the heart of Avadore Province on her estate of Hayvale. Hayvale, as estates go, is quite small – little more than a large farm, a small village, and lots of wooded hills. But the great house was old and imposing, her father, Allader Bedoux, the Baron Roudorn, a great but kindly, man, and her step-mother, Contraina, a pleasant down to earth woman who was also a most marvelous cook and the author of several highly regarded cook books. The Baron is a famed economist, a schoolmate and close friend of the Grand Duke of Avadore, Lord Brydane. He's as settled and serene as his daughter is (or at least, was) wild and untamed. She, I'm given to understand, was much like her mother at her age. She died in a riding accident when Ashra was twelve years old. Two years later the Baron married Contraina, who, even as the wife of a Baron, takes a hands-on approach to preparing the meals at Hayvale. To Ashra's great credit, and to everyone's surprise, she accepted her step-mother without a fuss. It may've been due to the fact that Cantraina was content to be the Baron's wife, and not his daughter's mother. Or it may've been her cooking…. In any event, each summer I'd spend a month roaming the countryside with Ashra, ridding, hiking, swimming, and touring the province on horse back. I also fell in love with her in Hayvale, adopting, for a time, the old masters' belief that her taste in companions was just a passing fancy, as it had seemed to be with her mother.
It took me two years to realize that wasn't the case. She made it clear that she had no more desire to make love to a boy than I had – she hoped. I guess it made sense, she was a boy at heart, and will likely always be a boy at heart – a boy, but never a man. Our friendship survived the crisis, but with no ties to bind us together once we finished our studies, we parted ways, I for the great continent of Sunset, to make my name digging in the ash and dirt for the rusty fragments of the Lost Ages, and she to a post in the Avadore Ministry of Trade. And though we have kept in touch over the years with long, but infrequent letters, it can not overlooked how far apart we've been these years. While I find that she's still as dear to me as she had been, I must wait to see how life had changed her – and me in her eyes.



03
Wayscross Rail Carriage Station and Hotel is a grey stone building, built in perpendicular style with five stacks of bowed out windows on either side of the wide entry arch rising four stories to dormers in the steep-pitched roof. The central entry arch leads to the glass roofed platforms, with a buffet and shops on the left, and the hotel dinning room on the right. It has a busy stone paved courtyard in front where passengers and goods are dropped off or picked up.
Arriving a bit early, I cautiously edged my runabout into the fringe of the busy courtyard – crowded with electric and horse-drawn cabs, delivery lorries, wagons and people, recklessly dodging the carts and cabs. A GH 4 is a light, low-slung vehicle, two wheels forward, one in back chain-driven by a voltaic-cell powered engine. From my low slung seat, I could look up and see the bellies of the draft horses staring down at me with suspicion, if not ill-concealed hostility. I took their warning to heart and declined to press my luck by pushing too deep into this throng.
I was greatly relieved when I spied Ash, impeccably dressed, emerge from shadows of the station arches. She was an elegant young man this afternoon – brown and white shoes, white twill trousers with a matching jacket, unbuttoned to show a bright yellow and blue stripped sweater over a pale blue shirt with a yellow silk scarf under the stand up collar around her neck. She had added a large pair of amber framed and tinted glasses to her look and finished it with a flat cap set at a rakish angle. Spying me, she picked her way though the throng, with a haughty look of disdain on her aristocratic face.
'Slide over, I'll drive,' she said as she reached the runabout.
'I can manage.'
'I'm sure you can. Still, I'll drive. We don't have all afternoon. Move.'
I could spend the rest of the afternoon arguing with her, and she's still end up driving, so I moved, sliding over to the passenger side of the narrow seat. She swung her leg over the low side panel of the runabout and as she slipped down into the seat, she drew the other one in. Taking the wheel in hand, she threw the runabout in reverse and twisting about started it moving decisively backwards. And with a few sharp warnings to unwary pedestrians, quickly extricated us from the courtyard and out into the stream of High Street traffic. I half turned in the cramped, or rather cozy seat, and took Ash in.
'You realize, my dear Ash,' I said as we drifted along in the mixed horse and electric traffic of the stone paved High Street. 'That if any of those people I'm supposed to avoid while in the company of Baroness Roudorn should happen to see me driving out with the foppish young man you're playing this afternoon, it will not do my reputation any more good than seeing you as you were this morning.'
'You're wrong. It will do you a great deal of good. Oh, I suppose that if some of your new bachelor scholar colleagues catch sight of you driving out with a bright young man like me they may be madly jealous. However, they'll get over it soon or later, and when they do, I'm sure you'll find them ever so nice and chummy.'
'They're not like that at all…'
'Ha! Wait and see… You'll be one of the old boys in no time.
'I don't want to be one of the old boys.'
'That's your choice. I'm just doing what I can to help you comfortably settle in to the cozy Wayscross academic society and make new friends.'
'You're not. You're merely having fun. At my expense. Hopefully no one will notice, and if they do, they won't recognize me.'
'They're noticing me,' she replied brightly, and flashed me one of her rare smiles. 'Where to?'
'Since you commandeered the wheel, so I guess it's your choice. You know the countryside as well as I.'
She considered our options as we left the busy High Street behind for the long, terrace house lined, tree shaded streets, of Wayscross's residential environs. 'The Angler's Rest?'
'Dinning in the garden along the Rhym sounds like just the ticket on a day like this. Plus it's far enough away that we're unlikely to run into anyone from the University on a weekday evening,' I added.
Five minutes later we put the row houses behind us and drove through hedge boarded cottages until even they grew thinner on the ground, leaving us only with the hedges. The white road stretched ahead of us, bordered by tall dark green hedges that hid the countryside beyond them from view, leaving us in a world of sunlit tree tops of distant woods, the pale blue sky, the bright white clouds, their flat bottoms silver grey as they sailed the sky, the purring of the wheels and the songs of the birds. On reaching the crest of a hill, we were rewarded with a brief glimpse of the next valley and the next hill beyond, hazy in the mild May sunlight and soft with distance. Occasionally the road would take us past or through the cool shadows of a woods, fresh with new leaves. Behind us, we left a thin cloud of white concrete and chalk dust – the main roads of Camalea are paved with concrete gravel excavated from dead cities – the ground up bones of the Lost Ages.
'How fast does your new toy go?' she asked, accelerated to answer her own question.
'They say it has a top speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour. But unless you want to walk home from The Angler's Rest tonight, you'd best keep it at 20.'
'Not much better than walking…'
'A great deal better than walking. You can put 200 miles on without charging, if you keep it at 20. And it will get you home.'
'The Angler's Rest isn't more than 25 miles…'
'Are you in such a great hurry to eat, my dear?' I asked, staring at the road ahead as the hedges started flashing by with rather alarming rapidity. I'd traveled this fast before, on the carriageline of course, and in bigger, more substantial vehicles of the Baron's as well – with Ash at the wheel. We hadn't ended up dead in a ditch. But it had always seemed rather touch and go. More touch and go than I'd prefer. It still did.
She sighed and slowed down – after having shoved the accelerator pedal to the floor board. As we drifted down to 20, she asked, 'Now tell me about your great find. The one you alluded to in your last letter from Sunset. Reading between the lines it sounded like you'd found an Iron Giant or a King's Relic, or even, working wizard's talisman? It has be one of those, given your great reluctance to say anything more than tantalizing hints about it.'
'Well, I didn't want to say too much until we had secured it. In the wilds of Sunset, you can't be sure what your rivals will do for a possibly intact First Age relic.'
'That's what you found?'
'Ash, this must stay strictly between us. Even though the relic is here in the Institute’s Wayscross warehouse, we don't want word to get out.. You know how it is. Find something too important and certain people get interested….'
'Like the King.'
'Like the King. Right now, it certainly doesn't meet the King's Find criteria. But it's hard to defy the King if he or his agents should take an interest in it, so it's better to keep things quiet for now.'
'We're all the King's men,' she said sarcastically.
'Right. And it will be his if it is his by right,' I replied. The kings of the 19 Provence of Andareia have laid claim to any working Lost Age relic or magical device that should be uncovered. It is extremely unlikely than any such relics or devices exist, since the First Age, known in myths and folklore as the Age of Iron Gods lies some 40,000 years in the past and the Second Age, the Age of Iron Wizards, lies more than 35,000 years in the past. I've spent more than a decade studying the science of arcaneology, and for the last seven years overseeing arcaneology digs on First and Second Age sites in Sunset, and so can say with a fair amount of certainly that finding anything more than crumpled, corroded metal amongst rubble fields of concrete or patters of rust and impressions of decayed components in the ash is an extremely rare occurrence. That I chanced upon one artifact that may be at least partially intact, was the break of a lifetime, my ticket to, if not fame, notoriety within the arcaneolgist community.
'So what is it you've found that you are hiding from the King?' she asked with a sidelong glance. 'You secret is safe with me.'
'I don't know. And may never know. But what makes it so special is that the vast majority of First Age finds, the metal appears to be largely free of corrosion. Rather than trying to reconstruct an artifact from the patters and layers of rust in the ash, we may have the artifact complete. And, if the metal enclosures are intact, we may be able to study the so-called talismanic parts of a First Age relic.'
'How can you be sure it's not just some Third Age machine? If it is intact, that would seem to be the most likely explanation.'
I shook my head, 'No, it is embedded deep in Fist Age ash. I suspect that it has been buried under the glaciers, frozen in permafrost these many eons, to have preserved it so well.'
The Third Age peaked a mere 2,000 years ago, and we are still living in its embers. There are those who claim that Andareia is the beginning of the Fourth Age, but in reality, we are, at best, Third Age point five, or the Northern Third Age. The Third Age was a southern and eastern continent phenomena, and what is not Andareia was an agricultural colony of the vast Sumbarain Empire, one of the great powers of the Third Age. The Sumbarian Empire has long since decayed into dozens of small, sleepy, agricultural based, nations, like Sumbara itself, much of its Third Age scientific and industrial wonders lost.
'So how did you come across it?'

'Luck mostly.  

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Amazon Update


It seems that Amazon has decided not to price match the FREE price of The Bright Black Sea and Some Day Days on Amazon.com. The are now listed at $.99, which is the minimum price I can set on Amazon. This is their decision, not mine, as it is their choice to match, or not, prices of their "competitors," all of which are still FREE. They did this once before, about two years ago, when the price was $3.99. I sold around 5 copies a month for 6 months until the release of The Castaways of the Lost Star, when they once again matched the free price of everyone else. These days I sell a copy a month on non-USA sales, where they usually (but not always) do not match the FREE price. While I prefer the FREE price, it is always interesting to see what I would be doing if I was actually selling my books, so we'll just see how it goes. Depending on sales, I may well go back to the $3.99 price, not to make money, since I won't, but to give it a more premium look. It is, after all, a 700+ page book,  not some 25 page short story.  We'll see. In the meanwhile, you can download and side load the FREE mobi version for your Kindle from Smashwords if you care to. And, as I mentioned, Some Day Days is also now $.99 (good luck with that!) and the mobi version of that is also available at Smashwords for FREE.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Of Islands and Velvet Nights


I guess I have a couple of more story "noses" to post -- stories I started and abandoned this past summer (2017) because I either found that I wasn't motivated enough by them or I hadn't a plot that seemed to justify them. (I should note that this is a first draft and not proofread. You've been warned.)

Without future ado, here is: 

Of Islands and Velvet Nights


Chapter 01



01
'Good morning gang,' I sang out cheerfully with a wave of my umbrella as I strolled into the Exports Section of the Bureau of Trade, Department of Statistical Studies of the Island of Larrendia Governmental Office. 'The sun is high, the sky blue, the breeze balmy, the birds cheerful, and our workweek is in its last gasp. What do you say we take our morning break early and savor this wonderful morning as it should be savored – out of doors, and in the shade of LeVara's Cafe with his best Janvar bean caf? The reports can wait an hour.'
This proposal was met with a few mumbled 'Mornings.' A not unexpected response. Unlike me, none of them had fathers who were the High Ministers of a Larrendia province, which may've allowed me a certain latitude, that my office mates did not dare to share.
'As the junior member of this department, I bow to your judgment, though I can't help but think you will regret these golden days of our youth spent between these walls.'
Verra, looking up from desk no. 3 said, 'The chief was just in looking for you.'
I glanced back to the big, slowly ticking, wall clock over the doorway – 9:11 – I was well within the margin of error. 'Strange. Did he actually expect to find me at my desk at nine – on a beautiful morning like this?'
Mansean, who manned desk no. 5 across from mine, shrugged and without looking up from his papers, said, 'Or any other morning. Nevertheless, he was here and seemed very eager to talk to you.'
'Ah.. If wishes were wings, we'd all fly. Did he mention why he was so eager for my company? It's not like him.'
'No. He just told us to tell you to report to him as soon as you decided to show up.'
'Hmm. That's rather curious, don't you think, friend Manse? Almost sinister. Well, we'll all know soon enough, I suppose. But not before my first cup of caf,' I said, flinging off my hat and slipping my umbrella into the waste basket next to my desk before digging out my cafcup from the piles of papers that littered it.
The big, dented cafpot was to be found on the incandescent heating plate on the table beyond the long double row of filing cabinets at the far side of the room. I carefully poured myself a steaming cup of caf and inhaled a lungful of it warm, fragrant steam as I returned to my desk to settle into my creaking chair.
'He did said you were to see him straight away,' said Bengton from the desk next to mine, that being no. 9.
'As I shall, Beng. My heart's all a'flutter. It is an honor not to sneered at. Rest assured I shall attend to him directly, for as you can see, I'm diligently blowing on my caf to cool it to a drinkable temperature. However, facing the Chief without a cup of caf in me is not to be contemplated. Not at 9:13 in the morning. I must have all my wits about me during any confab with the Chief. He'd expect nothing less.'
'I'm sure that's what he feared,' muttered Masesan without looking up from his work.
I raised my cup in salute, and then took a tentative sip of the steaming caf and then stared at the fat, consular envelope with its dreary port of Entrevan, Caraffa, shipping report on my desk, ironically bright and cheerful looking in a shaft of sunlight slanting in through the tall frosted glass windows behind me, and sighed. 'We must all take a little rough with the smooth.'



02
I knocked on the Chief's door ten minutes later and waited for the growl to enter.
He growled and I entered. 'Morning Chief,' I said brightly, with my forced carefree cheerfulness fortified by my cup of caf. 'I understand you wish to see me.'
He growled something about 'not really' but waved me to the chair before his desk.
As I settled into the chair he said, 'You're still not married, are you, Croftoy?'
'Ah, not that I noticed, Chief. You'd certainly have been invited to the ceremony.'
'Engaged? Any children to support?'
I was fogged, but answered, 'No, No. Do mistress' count?'
'No.'
'Not that I have any of those either. Just curious. What's with all these questions, sir? Updating my personnel record?'
He glared at me. 'Yes, in a way. Yesterday I received a memo from the Island Governor’s Office instructing me to select one of my staff for immediate reassignment. They want someone who is young, fit, smart, and unattached for an unspecified position. You're as close as I can come to those requirements. You're unattached.'
'I'm young too,' I added helpfully.
'True, but even if you were 120 you'd still be ideal,' he growled.
'What sort of position are you offering me?'
He slid an envelope across the desk towards me. 'This may, or may not tell you. I wasn't told, though I expect you'll find that it's off-island work of some kind.'
'A consular post?'
'I doubt it. Consular posts are not handed out in sealed envelopes, nor do families matter. No, I expect it's some manner of field work.'
'A spy?'
'Island governments do not employ spies, Croftoy.'
'No sir, of course not. We all serve the Throne.'
Of course we did. That fat consular envelope was from our “spies” in Caraffa's port of Entrevan, though they were official members of the Larrendian trade mission. And while the Ministry of Trade and the Department of Statistical Studies used these reports to provided a sorts of assessments to aid Larrendian business interests in all the other major islands – they were our nominal reason for existence – we also provided political assessments based on these economic reports to the Island Governor's office as well. The Islands of the Founders were all one under the Founder's Throne, but that did not preclude rivalries between the islands and consequently keeping close tabs on them.
'Well, I don't think this is a Throne appointment either. No, the urgency of the appointment and lack of background strongly suggests that the powers and principalities above us want to get you out of sight as quickly and as quietly as possible. And provide deniability to those of us who have push the paper along.'
'Sounds fascinating.'
'That's your youth and inexperience talking. If I were a betting man, I'd say you're bound for some steaming hot, pest-ridden little port in the Savage Islands where the bugs are as big as your fist, lizards as long as your arm doing nothing more than counting ships and hoping that things do not get out of hand between Caraffa and Dariana – or you could be dodging bombs as well. Better you than me, Croftoy.'
I leaned back in my chair. It is remarkable how three years of pushing Trade Consular reports across one's desk can warp your outlook. I still actually found the prospect rather pleasing. 'Why, thank you, sir. Shall we see where it is?' I asked picking up the envelope from his desk.
He shook his head, 'No. I don't want to know. I wasn't told because I need to be able to deny any specific knowledge of what this involves should the Throne should suddenly wake up and decide to take notice of what's going on. Open it only after you've left.'
'And when will that be?'
'Kaysan should have you termination papers for this department filled out and ready for you to sign on your way out. Clean out your desk and be gone by noon. Say nothing about this appointment to anyone. Just say I sacked you, for the Founders' know, I've plenty of excuses. Or make up any old excuse why you're out on your ear that you might think people will buy. No one will believe you anyway. The important thing is that we want as few people as possible taking notice of it. The people you work with must be told something but otherwise try to slip out unnoticed.'
'Surely, I'll be greatly missed. Why the outrage, once word gets out…'
'Put it in a memo, Croftoy. And file it.'
'You know best, Chief. Though, I say, you're going to have to scramble to put together a farewell party for me.''
He sighed. 'We'll party after you're gone, Croftoy. And let me make this absolutely clear once again – you don't want to be greatly missed. You want to simply disappear, as unremarked as possible. Let's not tip off any Throne or other Island agents in the Bureau of Trade, if we can help it. Keep it simple and short your own sake. If you're going to find yourself in the field, you don't want to leave a trail from this office behind you. While it's considered ill manners to kill spies, if the secrets are deep and dark enough, well… the rules can be bent. And if you do end up in the Savage Islands, turning up dead will hardly raise an eyebrow. Some of those lizards are poisonous. Now get out of here.'
I nodded and climbed to my feet. 'Right. 'Well, then, I guess this is goodbye, Chief.'
'Yes, I guess it is,' he said with a slowly broadening smile added, 'Why, damnme, it is. Goodbye, Croftoy. And good luck,' he added, extending his hand.
'Thanks, sir,' I said, as we shook hands. 'I've enjoyed working for you.'
'The first lie of your new career, Croftoy. You can find your way to the door, can't you? Or do you need some help?'
'On my way, sir. On my way,' I said, slipping the envelope of secrets into the inner pocket of my coat.
It was only after I signed my termination papers and was walking along the long sun and shadow checkered corridor to the Export Section office that I began to wonder if I had a choice in this reassignment. You would think I would, though it was hard to pinpoint any spot in the brief conversation were the point could've been raised. Too late now, of course. As I arrived at the Export Section's door, I paused, considered what I needed to do. I didn't think there were any Throne agents in in the Export Section, but I decided that I'd best follow orders.
I entered and briskly walked to my desk, followed by nine pairs of curious eyes. I pulled open the top drawer of my desk and collected the two Cryth & Silfer pens that constituted my personal belongings and slipped them into the inner pocket of my coat alongside the letter. I had not set down deep roots in the Export Section over the last three years. There was the cafcup, but I'd pass along to my replacement. He or she would need it.
'Well, what did he say Croftoy?' asked Maseson, looking up.
' I'm afraid I have some bad news for all of you. News you'd best take this sitting down,' I began, looking about the room. 'Good, I see that you're all seated, so I can come right to the point. The Chief and I had a frank and open discussion, the result of which has been that I have collected my personal effects and now must bid you a tearful goodbye.'
'You mean to say that you've been sacked?' exclaimed Maseson.
'I suppose I could dispute who sacked who, but in the end, it is not worth disputing. The bottom line is that I must take leave of you, now, today, and without a farewell party. However,' I added pulling out my pocketbook and drawing out a few bills, 'I will leave these bills with Mase here for you to drown your sorrows after work today. And a word to the wise – make it after 17:00, and not a minute earlier…'
'This is a joke, isn't it Gil?' asked Verra. 'You can't have been sacked for being 11 minutes late.'
'That may've been the final grain of sand that sunk the barge, Verra. But I'm sure the cause goes much deeper.'
'What will your father say?' asked Bengton.
'I must confess, that I am not all that eager to find out.'
'I mean to the Chief for sacking you.'
'I doubt that he's any more eager to find out than I am. But, I suppose that we all must take the rough with the smooth,' I replied, setting my hat on my head and drawing my umbrella from the waste basket. 'I have enjoyed my time in the good ol'Export Section and slaving alongside all of you. I shall miss you all.'
I then proceeded to circle the room shaking each of my office-mate's hands and exchange good luck, goodbyes in turn.
I finished with Verra, how didn't let go of my hand. 'I think we deserve the truth, Gil,' she said, watching me closely. 'After three years, you're one of us.'
'I am, and I shall miss all of you. I do not know what the future holds for me, but it is just possible that I may drop you a note or two. However, I have been sacked, and I trust that will be the beginning and end of your speculation outside of this room.'
Verra gave a searching look, and then nodded. 'Right. We will expect clear, complete and elegantly written reports.'
I nodded. 'I have told you all I know. But I hope to send you a line from from time to time.'
As I opened the door I turned about and looked about the office one last time. The narrow room, with a single row of ten desks, set in facing pairs, running down the middle, had been my home away from home for the last three years. A double row of filing cabinets filled the back of the room where our hard work went to die. On the wall behind me were the rolled up wall maps of the Islands of the Founders and the twelve major islands. Tall frosted windows lined both sides of the office. They opened to a small courtyard or light well between the office wings – the Larrendia Government Offices Building had been built before the Throne had introduced incandescent lights to the Islands and it still largely relied on the sun to illuminate its workings. On bright, sunny days, such as today, the office almost looked pretty – the muted shafts of sunlight falling through the floating dust motes to the rich wood desks and piles of cream colored papers. Almost.
Nevertheless, I found myself genuinely sad to leave, much to my surprise.
I raised my hat in salute, and finding no words, for once, turned and left.



03
My cheerfulness partially returned as I put the Government Offices behind me. The tree shaded streets of Larran where busy with shoppers and clerks running errands. Pedal and oil-engine vans and carriages drifted down the wide streets, dodging the clanking street-rail carriages that ran down the center of the major streets. I stopped at LeVera's Cafe for a second cup of caf and a sweet roll. It had been an eventful morning. I spent my time over the caf, watching the people saunter past me. They had a purpose, while I found that I felt like I had actually been sacked, a mixture of freedom and anxiety as all the implications began to sink in. I needed a purpose, and the stiff envelope in my pocket proved too tempting to ignore.
It seemed safe enough to open it here, so I slit the envelope with my pocket knife and drew out its contents. It contained exactly two items. The first a ticket for a sleeper compartment on this evening's night rail service to Evertre, which I knew to be a small city on Larrendia's western shore. The second was a single sheet of paper with a machine-written instruction to call at 10 Kimartha Street at my earliest convenience. I was to ask to see one Lint Berian. And when asked who I was, I was to state my name and say I was from Perner Wenyand; my old Chief. And that was all. When I had stared at the sheet of paper and ticket long enough to recognize that I could gleam no more from them, I slipped them back in the envelope and the envelope back into my inner pocket.
All in all, the lack of information made my problems, save one, pretty easy to solve – a few brief notes to friends – a new job, big rush, fill you in later – would suffice. It would suffice for father as well. I'm sure he could find out more, if he cared to. It would, however, not suffice for Relae. Thinking about Relae I realized that perhaps I could've used a second cup of caf during my interview. The more I thought about Relae the more I realized that I might have been too hasty – too carefree – during my interview with the Chief, and the less I was looking forward to our standing dinner date for fourthday. The night rail would not depart until 22:55, so I'd have no excuse for not seeing her. Not that I didn't want to see her, it just that, well, it was going to be iffy.
I boarded the outbound street-rail carriage at the Veytana Street Market that would take me to Larran's suburbs and the family's city/country villa where I lived. At 10:10 in the morning the carriage had a distinctly different clientele then it did at 17:15 when I usually rode it homewards. At 17:15, my fellow passengers were city-men and city-women dressed correctly in our beige, grey, or black business suits. We swayed in sync with the rolling gait of the carriage as we read the news sheets or talked in quiet tones of business and society as the carriage swayed down the long street. The 10:10 the passengers were far more gaily dressed and far more lively. Banter and gossip flew back and forth, up and down, the carriage. Instead of leather portfolios, they lugged baskets and string bags filled with produce and bakery from the Veytana Street Market. Nevertheless, they were bound for the very same suburban villas, where they were employed as domestic help; cooks, maids, and the odd yard-and-garden man pressed into shopping service. And, like the city-folk, one by one they abandoned the street-rail carriage, at every stop as it clanged and squealed it way down the shade-dappled Veytana Street towards the outer most fringe of Larran proper.
I was one of the last to leave, a few blocks short of its turnaround terminal. Our villa, Meadow Garden, lay two blocks off Veytana Street. It was a not all that large, wood-built foursquare house set in a not all that large garden lot, completely unremarkable for its location – the homes of prosperous Larran business men and government officials. Its bamboo tiled roof was painted sky blue, and the dark green painted two story veranda that circled it was trimmed with gilt and draped with flowering vines. From the shadows of the veranda, its full height window-doors glimmered between the rarely used storm shutters and varnished wood panels.
I walked up the flower lined walkway and entered the cool, dark wood paneled entry way. 'I'm home!' I called out, just to give the staff fair warning. Who knows what they do at 10:30 in the morning, with the master gone?
'What are you doing home, sir? Is everything all right? Have you come down with the fever?' asked Mai, hurrying out from the kitchen. She was our housekeeper and the person in charge when the important family are not in residence.
'I'm fine. I've been given a new assignment, and the day free. Include me in lunch. I'll dine with you and the staff in the kitchen, no fuss.'
'Yes, sir,' she nodded, and made no fuss. She'd known me all my life, and I'd been residing at Meadow Garden for the last three years, since coming down from the university, so we had a very comfortable understanding.
I changed into some casual clothes, and wrote my notes before lunch in my room. After lunch I turned my attention to packing. I'd little in the way of suitable clothes for equatorial pest-holes if I was indeed bound for the Savage Islands. I had rather avoided pest-holes, equatorial or otherwise as a rule. Of course, the pest-ridden equatorial posting was just speculation, but if it wasn't an equatorial pest-hole, what was it? In the end, I packed a light wicker portmanteau with just the necessaries for few days, and some casual, holiday clothes. Once I knew more about my assignment, I could purchase a suitable wardrobe. Later, after the afternoon shower, I wandered out to in the gazebo to do some thinking about Relae.
While she is not, by any stretch of my imagination, my mistress, we did enjoy a dear, free, almost casual friendship – a sweet, understated friendship that I fear I'd taken too much for granted. We had made no long term plans – save that perhaps that we would make those plans sometime – we were too young to bother with them now. However, the normal trade consular posting was five years, and I could hardly expect my posting, whatever it was, would be significantly less, so suddenly we weren't too young, but making long term plans in the few hours and in the face of a five year separation, was too much to ask of her, even if she did care for me more than what she let on – or I had let on about her. What I would say, and more to the point, what she would say this evening I found impossible to guess.



04
I called at the front door of the MarDarr's villa, not quite three blocks from Meadow Garden. Her parents owned MarDarr's Market Place, a large general merchandise store in Larran. Relae came bounding down the stairs as soon as I was shown into the dark, twilit hall, in slacks and a light coat.
'You look wonderful, my dear,' I exclaimed. She did.
'Hello, Gil. Right on time,' she said, giving me her hand and her cheek to kiss. 'Were should we go tonight?'
'I don't want to share you tonight, so I thought we could find a cozy booth in the little Silfara restaurant, The Sizzle Pot, on the corner of Veytana and Bley Street. It's close enough to walk to, and I have some news to tell you along the way.'
'Oh? News, you say?' she said archly, grabbing her umbrella and hat. 'Good news or bad?'
'Bad,' I replied.
'Oh,' she said giving me a sharp look, but said nothing until we had reached the pavement and turned towards Bley Street. 'Tell me.'
'I had a rather interesting interview with my Chief the first thing this morning. He called me into his office and said that the was looking for a handsome, debonaire, dashing, brave, and resourceful fellow without wives and children to support for a special posting…' I began and went on to describe my morning's interview.
'So, publicly, I've been sacked, but in reality I've been transferred to a different branch of our department – though exactly what branch, or where I'll fit into it, or be posted, or for how long, has not yet been made clear to me. All I know is that I have to catch 22:55 night rail to Aulia tonight.'
'Tonight?'
'I'm afraid so. Not by choice, I assure you.'
We walked in silence for a few minutes after I'd finished.
'You were being your usual flippant, casual self, in all this, weren't you?'
'Ah, I'm afraid so.'
'Playing the fool, and ending up as one.'
'It would seem so...'
'Did you even think to ask for more details?'
'There was no point. The Chief didn't know anything more than he told me. He wasn't told. It's all a matter of deniability should the Throne ever get wind of it or care enough to inquire.'
'And you didn't think to ask for a few days to consider it?'
'No. To tell the truth, it never occurred to me.'
'It didn't? Isn't that the usual procedure when offering someone a new position? Especially one that might involve an off-island posting?'
'Well, yes, I'm sure it is, but perhaps not for this type of posting. In any event, it didn't seem to come up in the conversation.'
'And of course you just played along, as if it was all a joke.'
I couldn't really deny that. 'Looking back, it would appear so. I guess I wasn't thinking clearly. It was, like 9:30 and I had only one cup of caf in me. It just sort of went the way it went… I suppose I should've had a second cup of caf, but I couldn't keep the Chief waiting that long.'
'And there you go, making a joke of it all again.'
'Sorry.'
We walked in silence for half a block.
'And you never thought of me – of us – at all?' she asked, at last. The nub of the issue.
'Ah, well, I did ask if a mistress counted as a dependent that might disqualify me for the post – they don't,' I began, in a weak attempt of humor that it wasn't appreciated,. I hurried on. 'But of course, you're not my mistress. You're my friend. My best friend, really. And given the nature of the assignment, and the way it was presented, friendships where neither here nor there. I guess at the time, all I thought about was that I was being offered a chance to escape years of pushing papers from one side of my desk to the other. And a chance for a little adventure. To see something of the islands. To do something in my youth that I'd not want to do when I was older and knew better.
'The truth is, Relae, I don't think I was ever given a choice. There was never even the hint that this was anything other than orders that I was expected to obey. Chief made it sound like it had to be someone from the Statistical Studies Office, and given all the requirements of the assignment, I was likely the only one who fit all the requirements.'
'There must be sixty people in the different departments. Certainly you can't be the only one who's under 40 who's not married.'
'You're forgetting smart, dashing, handsome, and debonair.'
'You're making that part up.'
'Well, it was implied. The thing is, if it had been a regular trade consular posting, all that wouldn't matter. Age would be no bar and families would go along. But you can't take a family to some little pest-ridden port on the fringe of the Savage Islands. And I had no excuse – that the Chief would accept – to decline offer.'
'If that thought had ever crossed your mind.'
What could I say? I said nothing. The sun was leaving us for night – its last red-gold rays were gilding the tops of the trees, but the blue twilight was deepening under their arching branches. I glanced to Relae next to me. Her eyes were on the pavement, her face grave – or angry. I waited for her decision.
'So, what do expect of me?' she said, after a long pause.
'I expect that we will continue to be the best of friends, though it will be very different with me off somewhere for possibly years. I expect nothing more of you. Friends for ever.'
'So “us” doesn't matter that you're leaving…'
'Of course it does matter, greatly – but seeing what I've gone and thoughtless done, I can't expect anything more that friendship. I would hope for more, but...well, we – or I, anyway – thought we had years yet to decide if we were more serious than that.'
'We're already lovers.'
'With a wink and a nod. We were playing – you made that clear. No commitments, no strings.'
'I thought you were someone I could trust,' she said softly.
'And you can. I was a fool this morning. No excuses. And I beg your forgiveness. But I ask you, if I had kept my wits about me and said I needed the two free days to consider the posting, would you have made it a choice of you and us, or what could be seen as my duty to our island?'
'Duty! Oh, come off it, Gil. You want to be this secret agent or whatever. It's not a matter of duty.'
'And I want you as well… certainly as a friend, and, well, I guess just as a friend for now – it would be terribly unfair to expect more with the prospect of being gone for years.'
'Exactly.'
'I find I regret that, Relae, for what it's worth.'
She walked in silence for a while.
'You were a chump this morning. And I have to admit that I am rather hurt to be an afterthought in your life. But I suppose you're not entirely to blame. I was in no hurry either to settle things between us, much less settle down. A few years apart is not a terrible blow to any cherished plans of mine. I'll just have to find someone else to feed me supper on fourthday, and do other things with,' she added with a sidelong leer.
'Yes, of course. We've our youth to live, not to mope about. However madly jealous I'll be, I'll not let it turn to bitterness.'
'Oh, you'll be jealous, that I can assure you.'
'No more than I deserve. I am truly sorry, Relae. I was a chump. I wasn't thinking clearly. And I feel terrible that I didn't think of us. I was caught by surprise, and five minutes later, I was signing my termination papers…'
'Oh, never mind. We'll just be friends, but no promises beyond that. Do we have an understanding?'
'Yes. I could ask for nothing more. You're free. I make no claims beyond friendship. Perhaps the separation will make our hearts grown fonder. I know it's making mine already.'
She stopped and looking around. We had the orange-lit street to ourselves, so she stepped close and we kissed.
'Are you hungry?' she asked softly, watching me after she had gently pushed me away.
'No,' I said, heart pounding.



05
We made the rail station with 10 minutes to spare, and the proper platform with five to spare. The great rail shed platform was largely deserted – small clumps of travelers saying their goodbyes, just as we were. We stood in the vague strip of light cast by a rail compartment window and kissed one last time.
'Damn, damn,' I muttered when we parted. 'You are being so cruel.'
'Revenge is sweet.'
'Oh my, it certainly has been... I was such an idiot.'
She smiled. 'And handsome, debonaire, dashing…'
'Not to mention, brave and resourceful…' I added helpfully,
'But an idiot.'
'Your idiot,' I said and pulled her close again, kissed her one last time, briefly, and then lifting my portmanteau, and the warm box of steamed buns we had stopped to pick up along the way, I turned to board the rail carriage.
I took three steps, and then turned and walked back to her.
'I love you, Relea,' I said.
'That's unfair, Gil,' she said softly, but blushed.
'I know. But I need to say it to you in person, Relea, not write it in some sad, lonely letter. I probably have loved you for such a long time, that I took it for granted and, well, there seemed no reason to say the words-- we understood each other. I know it changes nothing. I just don't want you to wonder.'
She just shook her head. 'Get on the train, and try very hard not to be such an idiot.'
I managed to find my compartment, and lifting the window, waved and called out goodbye to Relea just as the rail carriages started, hesitated, banged and started again into the night.



Chapter 02



01
I opened the box of steamed buns and selected one. I took a bite. I had been an idiot, and a fool, and there was nothing I could do about it. I didn't know what lay ahead, but I knew now what I was leaving behind. Too late. Refusing this posting was not in the cards. She'd not take me back if she thought I bowed out, even for her sake, but I needed to get back before I faded from her memory. I'd a feeling that my two priorities were mutually exclusive.
Damn.
I turned off the compartment's light to watched the tree shaded, dim, incandescent-lit streets of Larran march by, one by one, until they ended and the countryside began – black, blue and silver in the light of several million stars, the silver stream, and Corath, the smaller, silver moon. Black clumps of woods, lined silver fields, fence lines, roads, and dark houses in blue shadows slipped by, and by, and by, sometimes unseen, hidden behind my tumbling thoughts, my regrets. Still, I didn't feel like sleep, and so I watched the rolling landscape slowly grow brighter as Darmeth, the big gold moon rose, out of sight from the east, over the fang-like mountains of the Central Ridge that guarded the great dome of Mount Larrenda. Sometime after midnight, I began to catch a glimpse of the sparkling ocean as the rail line approached the western coast to skirt the volcanic line of mountains, some still smoking, that divided the island of Larrendia in two.
I may have dozed, the last hour or two, since I was startled by the knock on the compartment door when the attendant announcing that we'd be arriving in Evertre in a quarter of an hour.
You don't want to arrive in Evertre at 4:47 in the morning. Well, you don't want to arrive anywhere at 4:47 in the morning, but the deserted platform, dim, cool, and smelling of hot oil-engine fumes, was anything but inviting. I was the only one to debark, but there were several clumps of 4:47 people huddled on the platform to take the rail on to Larrenda's second city Aulia, its southern port, two hours down the line. Fortunately, the Station Hotel had a sleepy-eyed clerk on duty – the 4:47 from Larran was not a surprise – and I was able to secure a room.
I awoke, much refreshed around 9:30, a nice, lazy, fifthday time and climbed out of bed by 10:00 – too late for the hotel breakfast, but with the tourists out and about, I was able to secure one of the bathrooms on the floor to bathe. I donned some casual, touristy clothes and stepped out into the bright Evetre morning. I quickly found a cafe with a plaza on one of the terraces that overlooked the city and its holiday cottage suburb that fell to the old volcanic crater that was Evetre Bay, not more than a long league away. I sipped my caf and nibbled on my sweet roll and considered my next move as the sun warmed scent of the ocean played around me.
Having been unceremoniously herded to Evetre, I found I was in no great hurry to report to no. 10 Kimartha Street. To begin with, I'd have to find Kimartha Street, which, I admit, I wasn't going to do sitting in the sun on the SeaView Cafe's plaza. But even if I didn't order a second cup, which I did, the scouting expedition would likely not turn up the establishment much before noon, and I expected the interview to far more extensive than the one that landed me here, so I decided that my earliest convenience would be sometime after lunch.
Fortified by two cups of caf, I set out to explore Evetre, a town of two story wood buildings is built on a series of long, terraces climbing the slope of the West Guard. Each terrace consisted of a single broad, building lined avenue. Short, steep cross streets linked the terraces. The long, lowest terrace was a broad street market crowded with shoppers – natives and tourists. I asked a fruit vender where I could find Kimartha Street. I was told that it was six block south – one of these short cross streets. Of course no. 10 Kimartha Street was just short of the top of the town, and I was feeling it in my legs when I puffed past, a dark, narrow, building leaning up against the lava-stone terrace wall. It was only wide enough for a doorway and a dirty display window, empty save for dusty spiderwebs. The sign over the door said, in peeling paint,” Fouson & Song Trading Co.”. They looked to have peaked in prosperity about the time my father was playing with blocks in the nursery.
I puffed past it with nothing more than an incurious glance and continued up to the terrace in search of a restaurant for lunch. And to catch my breath. I found an unassuming restaurant that through its front windows seemed popular with the natives and enjoyed a leisurely lunch in its quiet, shady back terrace that overlooked the rooftops of the terrace below to provide a view of the town and cottages that spread out to Evetre Bay and the ocean behond.. I lingered over a desert cup of caf until after 13:00, and if I give you the impression that I was rather reluctant to present myself at no. 10 Kimartha Street, you wouldn't be far from the truth. I needed to clarify what I would, and would not accept in this posting. I couldn't throw the whole thing over – Relae wouldn't stand for that, not after having accepted it, however thoughtlessly – but I wanted answers, full and complete answers. And I decided that I wasn't going to commit to an open ended assignment. If it was to the Savage Islands, I'd think two years would be more than enough. With that decision, I drained the last of my caf, and rose to meet my fate.



02
I stepped up to the door of no.10 Kimartha Street and pushing the latch handle down, pushed open the door. There goes my last chance of giving this a miss, I thought, and stepped into the dim, narrow front room. It was bare except for an ancient looking counter that ran the width of the room. A young woman sat in a chair beyond it reading a book.
The young woman looked up and gave me a rather guarded, “Good afternoon.'
I beamed at her, 'It is indeed. It's a shame you can't be out and enjoying it. Working on a free day…' I shook my head sadly.
'How can I help you?' She seemed unreceptive to my sympathy.
'I'm here to see Lint Berian.'
'And who should I say is calling?'
'One Gil Croftoy, in person. Perner Wenyand said I should look in.'
She put down her book and picked up the single folder from the small desk beside her and opening it, gave it, and me a long look.
'If that's my official imagebox print, it doesn't do me justice,' I remarked casually, catching a glimpse of my imageprint in the folder.
She closed the folder, and stood. 'Wait here,' she said, and with a brief knock on the door behind her, stepped in. She certainly hadn't seemed inclined to banter – I suppose having to work on a free day depresses the spirit. I then reminded myself, once again, to get serious and keep my wits about me – this time. For once.
When she returned, half a minute later, she walked to the end of the counter and raising the shelf said, 'You can go in.'
I stepped by her with a polite smile and into another bare room dominated by large desk. This time I was greeted cheerfully by a youthful looking fellow who hurried around the desk to shake my hand.
'Welcome to the firm. I'm delighted to meet you, friend Croftoy! I'm Les Berian, managing director. Please excuse our rather threadbare appearance. We're just borrowing this office. Here today, gone tomorrow. All a game, of course, but the powers and principalities want results, but without leaving their finger prints.
'I'm delighted to meet you sir,' I said shaking his offered hand respectfully, reminding myself not to fall into bad habits.
'Have a seat, Croftoy. Glad to see you found us.'
'Thank you, sir,' I said and took a seat before the desk as directed. And then waited for Berian to settle in as well.
'You're the fellow from the Statistical Studies Office,' he said, waving the folder his receptionist had brought him.
'My fame proceeds me, I see,' I said. 'I only learned of this posting yesterday morning.'
'Yes, it did. And I must say that I couldn't have asked for someone more qualified if I had ordered you up,' he said brightly, with a broad smile that suggested that he had. 'I expect you have a lot of questions. So feel free to ask any question, friend Croftoy. I think I can answer most of them.''
I nodded again. 'Yes, I do. My Chief claimed not to know anything about this posting.'
'He didn't – though he knew, of course, how the game is played. You never know – just when you think the Throne has grown blind, bang! You find yourself being asked by a coldhearted Agent of the Throne to explaining all sorts of uncomfortable things. Being able to say “I wasn't told.” with a clear conscious is a blessing. Knowing only what we need to know makes all our lives simpler.'
'Not necessarily,' I said. 'In any event, I believe that its customary when offered a position, to describe what that position involves – assuming you know what it involves,' I added, with a smile, hoped would've made Relae proud, had she been here with me. 'So perhaps you might began by outlining the job I've been posted to, and afterward, if I have any questions I'll ask them.'
He laughed. 'Just so. Forgive me. I forgot that they just doped this on you out of the blue sky. All this is second nature to me. Right. Let's begin at the beginning.
'The powers and principalities of our dear island have grown increasingly curious, about what Caraffa and Dari are up to in the Savage Islands. We know, of course, that they are rapidly developing oilnut plantations on many of the northern most islands, including the big islands of Garda and Desda, as you diligently recorded in your reports of imports and exports.'
I nodded. Our trade mission consuls on the other major islands send long lists of imports and exports compiled from public records to the Exports Section of the Bureau keep on top of all the current trade patterns. The Island Government of Larrendia also looks over our shoulder to see what the other islands are up to. I covered Caraffa exports and so I knew that they were exporting shiploads of construction equipment – blade tractors, power shovels, drags, heavy lorries, and other earth movers to the Savage Islands to clear the vast swatches of jungle for oilnut trees to meet the ever growing demand for oil fuel. Larrendia was too far north to play much of a role in this expansion, much to its chagrin.
'And like you, other sources of information have caught hints of something else going on as well.'
'Are you referring to the Throne's (Caraffa) Sea Defense Force's recent policy of hiring cargo ships to carry what seems to be heavy construction equipment listed only as naval supplies and with no stated destination?'
'And the fact that the turnaround time for those ships is too short for them to be delivering their cargoes to either of the big islands of Garda or Desda.'
'Suggesting they are building something – a base or harbor – on some unknown island for some unknown reason.'
'Exactly. Though we have a fairly good idea what island they are delivering those items to.'
'You do? Where?'
'To their naval base on Crater Harbor, Panida.'
'But that's a long established base on a long settled island. Even if they were expanding it, they'd not need as much equipment as they seem to be acquiring. And it is my understanding that the island is fully developed. It's been reclaimed for well over a hundred years.'
'True. However, Pandia is not their ultimate destination. While we have no permanent observers on Panida – yet, we do have a few reliable correspondents who call on that port, sailors and island traders. From their rather infrequent reports, we have reason to believe that the merchant ships in question discharge their cargoes at the naval base on Panida where the construction equipment is transferred to Sea Defense transports for delivery to their ultimate destination.'
I considered that for a moment. 'Pandia certainly fits the turnaround schedule. But why? Why not send it direct to its destination?' I asked, and then answered my question after a moment more's thought. 'Because they want to keep that destination secret.'
'That is what we think. So secret that they will not risk sending their own transport ships back to Caraffa to pick up these cargoes. Sailors talk, and they don't want them talking where they might be overheard by people like us. Our own Sea Defense people have determined that the Caraffa Sea Defense ships operating in the Savage Islands have not returned to their home ports in Caraffa for over two years. They now seemed to be based out of Panida.'
'So what are they hiding?'
'We've no idea, not even a guess, save that it's deeper into the Savage Islands – beyond Garda and Desda. It's going to be our task to find out what their secret is.'
'We're going beyond Garda and Desda?
He smiled, 'I hope not. We're hoping that we can discover the secret on Panida. I assure you I'm no more eager to get deeper into the Savage Islands than you are. But I'll get to the practical details in a minute. There is one other aspect of the mystery that I want to briefly mention. We'll go into all the details on the voyage out.
'It's no secret that Caraffa and Dari are fierce rivals in the Savage Islands, racing to develop the oilnut plantations on Garda and Desda in order to ultimately control them, even after the Throne decides to admit those islands into the Union of Islands. With the ever increasing demand for oil, those islands are going to be rich, and both Caraffa and Dari want the oil to flow through them. Now there are rumors that that rivalry involves the Throne's Sea Defense ships of both those islands. Ships of TSD (Caraffa) and TSD (Dari) are rumored to be battling each other in the narrow sea between Garda and Desda. Captain Contre, our ship's captain, has, himself, observed at great distance what appeared to be a gun fight between the armored cruisers of those two branches of the Throne's Sea Defence. He had observed the ships early in the day, and shortly after sunset, observed flashes of what seemed like gunfire just over the horizon. Of course they could have been chasing off native raiders, but it would be very unlikely that the native raiders would have attempted to take an armored cruiser, so…'
'Caraffa and Dari are waging war against each other? And the Throne does nothing?'
'Well, not war, perhaps, but naval skirmishes – knife fights deep in the Savage Islands with armored cruisers and the like. And yet neither island lodges formal protests or files their grievances with the Throne… Clearly, or at least as clearly as our very limited intelligence allows us to see, there's something in the Savage Islands, something so…rich, powerful, or dangerous, that they may be willing to kill each other to obtain, while keeping it such a deep dark secret that they'll not even risk bringing the ships involved back to their islands. All we know is that they both want whatever it is, and neither has any intention of sharing it with the rest of us or the Founders' Throne itself.'
'And, as I said, it is our job to find out what they are hiding.'
'How are we going to do that?'
'With basic, boring, intelligence work. We are going to set up shop – an actual shipping business, in fact, on Panida and then we'll keep our eyes and ears open. We have an island trader that we'll send around the islands north of Garda and Desda to extend our eyes and ears, and perhaps, in time, establish some outlying business offices closer to the scene of action, if it looks promising. I'm quite sure that the islands are ripe with rumors, and that if we work diligently and intelligently, we can shift the truth out of them, in time without ever venturing beyond them.'



I'm sorry to leave you in the lurch, but here is were the manuscript ends...