Read an Excerpt
The Craft of Light
Night-Threads: Book Four
By Ru Emerson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Ru Emerson
All rights reserved.
There might be fog and chill along the Holmadd coast; in Sikkre it was barely midday and already hot— unseasonably hot and unnaturally windless. Banners and canvas awnings hung limp in the still air; sandy yellowish dust, kicked up by heavy foot traffic in the narrow aisles between shops and stalls, lay thickly everywhere.
It was somewhat cooler inside the main hall of the weaver's guild—the guildmasters had had the sense to lay the floor several steps below street level. Ordinarily there was good cross-ventilation, with windows on all sides to catch whatever wind blew. On a day such as this, Jennifer Cray thought wearily, the guild hall was merely a massive, gloomily dark and airless box. The Sikkreni Thukara blotted her forehead on her sleeve and sipped the orange drink that had been placed at her elbow. I'd kill for ice, she thought tiredly. The orange was barely above room temperature, and it had been sweetened with honey. After four years, she still hadn't adjusted to the flavor of honey instead of white sugar. She slid a hand along her chin and pinched her earlobe. What she really needed at the moment was coffee; this was the third day she'd spent between the Sikkreni weavers and American traders, trying to finalize a deal, and it was putting her to sleep.
She let her eyes slide left: two local merchants, one of whom had so nearly duplicated the weave of her blue jeans, the other who'd come up with a blue dye that didn't rub out of the fabric and onto skin. One elderly woman to represent those who did the actual spinning and weaving; an even older man who looked simple-minded, but was in fact head of the guild.
On her other side, Americans—or, as the Rhadazi called them, Mer Khani. Jennifer studied the man nearest her as he leaned forward to finger one of the pile of fabric samples on the table in front of him; he turned to speak in an undertone to the man at his right. She might as well think of them as Mer Khani herself; they were nothing like Americans from her own, twentieth-century world. Late nineteenth-century, these men were, and they spoke American with a broad English accent—not surprisingly, really, since their America had only separated from England within the past ten years. Peacefully, yet.
She shrugged that all aside; her nephew Chris had given up trying to sort out the differences between the world they'd left and this alternate one and it had never really mattered to her, where and when the two had split. What mattered was that an arrogant old Night-Thread Wielder had accidentally yanked her, her sister Robyn and Robyn's son into this world, and she'd survived it for nearly four years. Four years exactly, as of tonight, she reminded herself, and cleared her throat. The American pushed the samples aside and nodded. "We'll make the deal, then. Our cotton, your—your denim. Price as agreed yesterday, raw materials and finished product transported via Dro Pent. Provided the road—?" he hesitated. Jennifer drew the thick writing pad over and made a note.
"It's my understanding the road will be graded and resurfaced by late summer. That's between the Thukar and the Emperor's people; if there's any change, you'll be advised of it."
The middle American planted both elbows on the table and rested his chin on his palms. "It's a legitimate concern, ma'am; we came stright north from the Bez port and my partners here haven't seen that east-west road. I have. The pass was tough enough to cross in dry, early spring weather. In summer heat or under a heavy rain, it would be dire. Even once it's graded and resurfaced—a tunnel there would be a mite more sensible, wouldn't you agree?"
Jennifer shrugged. "If there comes a time when the business between the northern duchies and your people warrants it. In any event, the roads aren't my business, I have enough to worry about without that. I'll pass on your comment."
"No insult intended, ma'am—"
The third man along the table toyed with his orange drink, pushed it away finally. "This supposes of course that the New World Gallic government will give us passage through the Nicaraguan lake—"
Jennifer nodded and bit back a sigh. "Yes, well, we've had that out also, haven't we? Extensively. That's your matter, or rather, for the representatives your government sent down into Central America. If it's necessary to ship everything around the Horn, then we can renegotiate timing, quantities, and price—both for the raw materials and for the finished cloth." She slid the pad across to the man on her right. "If you'll initial each of the points, I'll see the contract is printed and bring it back tomorrow for signature."
She half-expected more argument; there'd been enough of that over the past three days. The American handed the pad to his neighbor so all three men could read down her handprinted list; after a brief, whispered conversation, he took the pen she held out to him, dipped it in ink and scribbled in half a dozen places. Jennifer blotted the paper and passed it the other way. The Sikkreni went into a huddle—none of them could have read the points even if they'd been written in Rhadazi, but like most non-reading members of the local merchant class they had near-perfect memories—and finally pushed them back across to Jennifer, who initialed the sheet on their behalf. With a loud scraping of chairs, all eight rose at once, and Jennifer fitted the pad, the ink and the pens into her leather case. The four Sikkreni bowed deeply and vanished through a curtain in the rear of the hall. Jennifer blotted her forehead, shoved the wide, padded strap over her shoulder and held out a hand. The lead American blinked, then took it and gave it a gentle pump. "You'll be here tomorrow, about this hour?" she asked.
He drew a fat silver case from an inner pocket and flipped open the cover. "One-thirty?" Jennifer pulled out her own pocket watch, a gift from Chris after the battery on her digital finally gave out, and nodded. "Suits us fine." He stepped aside to let her precede them. "You know, ma'am, we do appreciate what you've done here. This fabric trade. It's not our chief business in your Duchy, after all, but it's a little extra money for everyone. Never hurts, does it? And once we get cleared by your central government to set up a local genuinely mechanized mill, bring in men to organize the work force—why, just think how much fabric these people will be able to turn out." He stopped just short of the pool of hot sun at die open door and the dusty courtyard beyond it. "Now, ma'am, I know you'll say this isn't your concern either, but if we had a better way of transporting things from us to your cities, something that didn't depend on sea power and the conditions out there—say, if we were able to convince your Emperor on the subject of cross-continent transport. That young man, Mr. Cray, he's kin of yours, isn't he? Well, he's certainly in favor of it, and if you were to put your oar with his, so to speak, on the subject of steam engines—"
"That really is out of my hands," Jennifer said firmly, but she smiled to take the sting out of the words.
The American smiled back, and nodded. "So you've said." He clearly didn't believe her; a Duke's wife, after all, and a woman with direct access to the Emperor's brother who was himself head of the vast civil service and largely responsible for increased trade with the outside world. "Still, if you'd keep in mind, one steam engine can pull a number of large cars of materials, and they'd be limited to where they could go by the track system. It's all so much more efficient and faster than carts and horses, safer than ships, you know—"
She smiled again, shook her head gently. "I know all about railroads."
"Well, then. And if we could bring track across the mountains; we already have settlements across the plain from the Great Silt River—young Mr. Cray says you call it the Missi-? Can't say it, but that one. Well, we could run track north and south on this side and there'd be direct transport eastward for Sikkre, rather than having to send things around the Horn or portage across die isthmus and through that big lake the New Gallics hold and dragging things overland. The profits would—"
"I understand that. I understand how my nephew's thinking runs on the subject, and I also understand the concerns they're voicing in Podhru. And elsewhere. Gentlemen, frankly I'm not certain my word would be much use; you must be aware there are those in Rhadaz who worry that because I speak the same language you do, it's possible I'm somehow conspiring with you folks."
"Oh, so far as I know it's not a serious concern. If it were, I doubt I would have ever been allowed to deal directly with any of you. Until tomorrow afternoon, gentlemen." She tucked the leather case under her left arm, shaded her eyes with her right hand and stepped into the open.
Hot. Fortunately, she was dressed for it: The royal blue caftanlike garment looked formal enough but was made of a practical gauzy cotton and hung loose from a high pleated yoke almost to her ankles; the sleeves were flared and stopped just below her elbows. The flat, open sandals in a darker blue weren't as comfortable as sneakers would have been but the high-tops were pretty disreputable-looking after four years of heavy wear—and Jennifer was using the running shoes only for her courtyard runs, hoping to get another year out of them before they fell apart. There wouldn't be any way to replace them, once they did.
She had walked here from the Thukar's palace early in the day; she could make it back just fine. She glanced up, drew hot, dry air into her lungs. Well, maybe a little slower than she'd come. There wouldn't be any shade to speak of, between here and the gates.
Just outside the courtyard, she turned left, and stopped. Next to the rectangular fountain in the center of the street stood four of the inner household guard and just behind them, her two-wheeled, covered litter and the young man who pulled it. The guards came to attention and one, the captain of the household guard himself, hurried over. "Lady Thukara—"
Jennifer held up a hand, silencing him. "Grelt, where did you men come from? I told the Thukar when I left that I would walk back, and I'm certain I left word at the gate." She frowned as the other three came across, moving efficiently to surround her. "It's not that all hot," she added.
He shook his head, raised a hand and beckoned sharply; the boy slid into the harness, caught hold of the wooden poles and edged the rickshawlike litter away from the fountain. "The Thukar sent us, Lady; there's been a threat."
"Threat?" Jennifer laughed shortly. "Again? What now?"
He shook his head again. "From the lower market, a death threat against yourself."
Jennifer scowled up at him, ignored the hand someone held out to assist her into the litter. "This is ridiculous," she said finally. "If I had a silver ceri for every threat that's rumored to come from the flesh and death peddlers down there, I'd be wealthier than the Emperor himself. I'm walking. If you want to escort something, take this." She held out the leather bag.
Grelt took it, but also took her arm. "Lady Thukara—"
"I don't want to make a scene," Jennifer said ominously.
His eyes were unhappy. "Then, please, Lady; I have my orders. The Thukar—" He hesitated. Jennifer sighed heavily.
"Oh—all right. Before everyone out here begins to stare." She let him hand her into the little cart, pulled her feet in and adjusted the cushions behind her back as the boy took off at a trot. The guardsmen took up positions around the litter and jogged along, one to each side, one behind, one just ahead of the boy and to his left.
My own private secret service, Jennifer thought dryly. But a glance at the man on her left was sobering. His face was grim, his eyes watchful, and for the first time she could remember, all of them carried long, still-sheathed knives loosely in one hand, ready to pull out of the case and use if anyone came at her. Dahven must have put a genuine scare into them, and she wondered what he had heard—Dahven had been with her for most of her first month or so in Rhadaz, he knew she was well able to take care of herself. Something I can't handle—weapons or sheer numbers? She wondered. She hadn't gone armed, not on a cross-market walk to finalize a trade agreement. But Night-Thread would respond when she needed it—night or day, even as seldom as she used it any more. She slewed around on the uncomfortable flat platform and turned to the guard on her right. Thought so. He was tall and broad-shouldered—greatly changed in that respect from the first time she'd met him; his face was still too thin, nondescript and gave him the look of a teenage boy.
"Vey? I thought you would be halfway to Sehfi at this hour. Weren't you heading the escort to meet my sister?"
He glanced at her very briefly and the corner of his mouth turned up, before he went back to his study of the surrounding market. "Dahven—I mean, the Thukar—thought I'd be better here. With the rumors." His color was suddenly high. Chris's friend and business partner Edrith had the same difficulty—remembering to speak of his long-time friend Dahven as Thukar, at least in public. After all, both Edrith and Vey had known Dahven for years; Jennifer tried not to know what kinds of trouble the three had gotten into on the occasions young Dahven had snuck out of the Thukar's palace to run wild with two equally young market thieves. The little she had heard made her wonder how any of the three lived long enough to grow beards.
"Who's cutting up rough," she asked finally, "that Dahven decided to have me brought home in this uncomfortable box?"
The litter shifted and she clutched at the sides as it rounded a corner. The lane was narrower here, there were people everywhere and the smell of food, dust and heat near overpowering. The boy slowed of necessity. Jennifer's nose wrinkled involuntarily as a man edged past them, going the other way with four huge, foul-smelling camels. Vey shifted his hold on the dagger sheath. His eyes darted from one person to another, never still, and except for that initial glance he didn't look at her again. "Mahjrek."
"You've disrupted his business four times, Thukara," Vey said. "And now his building's been razed; certain people passed on the word that he was displeased."
"Serves him right," Jennifer said grimly. "He had enough warning that the anti-slave laws would be enforced; he can't say otherwise." She snorted. "Selling young women! And then, when we begin strict enforcement of the law—!" She drew a deep breath and let it out in a loud huff. "I admit he served a purpose, showing us where the loopholes were as quickly as he did. We might have been years tightening the law otherwise. All the same—"
"Thukara, you needn't convince me," Vey said gravely. "Thukar Dahmec knew the Emperor's law; he made himself wealthy by ignoring it and taking graft from men like Mahjrek. Mahjrek underestimated Dahmec's son—and yourself; no doubt he thought himself clever, changing the name of his shop and calling it a contracting service."
"Contracting service." Jennifer bit off the words. "If I could get my hands on him—" She let the sentence die away as the litter turned into one of the broader avenues heading away from the main part of the market and the boy picked up the pace again.
Vey shook his head. "Word in the lower market has it he feels very much the same about you, Thukara. Enough so, it's said, to warrant caution."
"He hasn't the nerve," Jennifer began.
"I agree," said Vey. "But he knows or can buy any number of men who have nerve—and weapons."
"Hah," Jennifer said sharply. Vey merely shook his head; he was beginning to sound a little winded.
They were near the southern gates now; once they passed the gates, they would turn right once more and take the broad, tree-lined boulevard to the Thukar's Tower. Jennifer rubbed her shoulders against the cushions and gazed moodily beyond Vey. Rickshaws like hers weren't that uncommon, but the guard was; people stared as they trotted by, and she could almost hear the remarks. By evening, the fabled Sikkreni gossip mill would be throwing out all manner of wild speculation. She shifted her weight as the boy slowed for the turn.
Excerpted from The Craft of Light by Ru Emerson. Copyright © 1993 Ru Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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