"By your leave, don Illuminatus, I would make my weekly report on... the extracurricular project."
Don Larami Illuminatus looked at her chief spy quizzically for a few moments, thinking about this word he'd used, which she'd never heard before. Before long, her subword sense kicked in, and she had it. "Ah, something to do with schools. Of course, we didn't have such things, when you and I were youngsters, did we? Interesting usage of the term, now. Hmmm. Well, anyway... proceed."
"I believe I have uncovered all of capo Mysshroudedtery's spies within our branch; I've found three, in total. It is possible they suspected I was investigating them, though I can't say for certain. And if they did suspect, I cannot say whether they know I have determined that they cannot be trusted. They may remain ignorant, but... I wouldn't count on it. Obviously, the capo wouldn't send out spies within her own organization who weren't excellent at what they do; I daresay they're better at their job than I am."
"Naturally, it can't be helped," allowed Illuminatus. "You can't be faulted for that. I'm just glad you were able to uncover them at all."
Chief Milkman bowed his head slightly and said, "Thank you, my don. I should say, it's also possible I've missed one or more of her spies, in my investigations. But, if any turn out to be on this completed list of those I've deemed unquestionably loyal to you," and he handed her the new list, "I will gladly accept any punishment for my failure, up to and including death."
Illuminatus grinned wryly as she took the list from her chief spy. "You're that confident, are you? Well, I do hope that confidence is well-founded. But I trust your judgment implicitly, and if you turn out to have made any mistakes, I assure you, death will not be necessary. Nobody's perfect. In fact I would be a fool to dismiss one as loyal as you from my service; your feelings of guilt would be sufficient punishment. On the other hand, if you have made a mistake, the odds of either of us remaining alive would be slim at best, anyway." She skimmed the list; it was definitely longer than the one he'd given her last We'yetday. Longer than she had dared hope, actually. Looking up again, she said, "I still see not a single enforcer."
"This was not unexpected. However, you will have noticed that between fifty and eighty percent of each of the other departments are on your side." Milkman smiled. "I think most of them feel the same about the capo as you do. Anyway, I'm particularly pleased to note that I've determined 80% of my own spies to be loyal to you, or at least to me, which amounts to the same thing. Of course, I haven't actually mentioned the possibility of breaking away from InterGang to anyone, and loyalty to you over the capo does not necessarily guarantee a willingness to join us when we do so. It would be safest to assume that the actual numbers of each department who come with us will be a bit less than the numbers on this list. ...As to the matter of enforcers, well, I've taken it upon myself to investigate the Brills-"
"Ah," said Illuminatus, "now that is an interesting thought. They've never made any real trouble for us; they know their place, and avoid conflict with the intervillage gangs. Nor have they ever displayed any interest in expanding to other villages, themselves. And yet... if we were to approach them with the possibility of getting in on the ground floor of a brand new intervillage gang... Hmmm. It wouldn't even seem suspicious, necessarily, to any of Mysshroudedtery's spies, if they knew I talked with don Cognoscente, so long as they don't hear what we talk about. I have, if you recall, actually met with him a couple of times in the past." She smiled and added, "We've both always liked each other's chosen surnames, you know."
"Great minds think alike, I'm sure" said Milkman. "Anyway, my investigation concludes that, as you've guessed, they wouldn't mind being part of an intervillage gang. It would enhance both their safety and their prestige, which would outweigh the loss of independence. And I am well aware that... well, I wouldn't call you and Cognoscente friends, but surely your acquaintance has always been an amiable one. For these and other reasons, I feel confident that the don would be open to joining your new gang, if you approached him in the right way. Naturally, your offer would have to include making him the don of your own Tonad branch. Things would remain essentially the same for him as ever, but that he would report to you. And, of course, the people we'd be taking with us when we left InterGang would greatly bolster the size of his gang, in every department except one. And while his own enforcement department may be smaller than ours- that is, InterGang's- of course it's a damn sight better than nothing, which is what we'd have otherwise."
"This is excellent news, my friend. Thank you, truly. Speaking of the Brills, I have myself spoken with the dons of several independent gangs of other villages. I trust I can rely on their not leaking information to anyone in InterGang; after all, if our actions end up weakening our current gang, it can only be to the benefit of other gangs, whether they align themselves with our new gang, or not. Don Haventhorp of the Jump Village gang, the Agency, seems amenable enough to the idea of an alliance, if not necessarily an actual merger, as you suggest with the Brills. I think he might even be willing to trade us some of his people, whenever we're prepared to begin establishing our own branch in that village. I talked to don Noir of First Village's Black Profits; I should very much like to have his gang as allies, if chiefly out of curiosity about them, since no one seems to know anything substantial about them. I'm sure you've heard the rumors," and chief Milkman nodded as she said this, "that they've been around since long before the Coming, even though no one had ever heard of them until then. Or at least, no one thought of them as a gang, per se. There have been whispers for centuries, but...." She shook her head. "Anyway, he politely declined my offer, and wished me the best of luck. I don't intend to give up on the possibility of any future dealings with the Black Profits, but for now," she shrugged, "it's fine. I can't help wondering why they don't want to expand beyond a single village; I'm sure they easily could. In fact, who knows? Maybe they already have, and we just don't know it.... Well, anyway, I've also contacted the dons of the BiShip gang, though they also seem disinterested in alliance, let alone merger. Which is just as well; neither InterGang nor LandOrder have branches in those two villages, so I see no need for our new gang to move in there, either. I daresay, between the pirates and the Navy, Ship and Shipsister would be nearly as dangerous as Shanty!"
"By the way," inquired Milkman, "I've been wondering... we keep speaking of 'the new gang,' but have you considered a possible name for the gang we're starting?"
"Ah, yes... it may sound a bit self-aggrandizing, but I was thinking of calling us 'the Illuminati.' Of course, I chose my Order-name for a specific reason; the meaning, 'enlightened,' has always been something to which I aspire. And that's what I want for our gang, as well. In fact, that's a goal I share with don Cognoscente; his gang's name, the Brills, has a similar rationale, if more slangish. We both value intelligence above all else."
Milkman nodded. "Sounds good. I'm sure you're right that most outsiders will see it as playing into your own, um, ego... but I think anyone within the new gang... within the Illuminati... will be enlightened enough to recognize and respect the true point of the name."
"I certainly hope so. Anyway, I know we both have plenty of our regular InterGang duties to keep us busy most of the time, which, given the circumstances, can be rather annoying, tedious, frustrating... though at the same time I do find it rather amusing. I've been trying to think of anything we might do, apparently for the immediate good of InterGang, which might later be used to serve our own purposes. I'm afraid I haven't thought of any such thing as yet; it seems safest just to do the best job we can for our current capo, so that we may stay in her good graces, and she may go on suspecting nothing. Or rather, suspecting as little as possible... I'm sure Myshroudedtery has always had spies in all her branches, even with no reason to suspect anyone of anything. Her spies here, no doubt, have in the last week and a half found reason to grow suspicious of something, though hopefully they've no idea of the true nature or scope of our plan. I suppose from now on, they'll be watching us more closely than ever, so we must watch them closely, and be as cautious as possible in whatever actions we take, whether routine or... as you say, extracurricular. However, the point I was getting to was, with our regular duties, we've little time to actually work toward our ultimate goal. And so... I assume you have nothing further to report, in this matter?"
"Not at the moment, my don. Nor have I anything to report on routine InterGang matters, today."
"Very good." She glanced at the list of loyalists again (though, not for the first time in recent days, she mentally questioned whether the word 'loyalists' might not be the opposite of what she truly meant). "I see chief Sorreter Malone is listed as someone who can be trusted. How sure of that are you? I know you said everyone on this list was 'unquestionably' loyal, but then, you also said not everyone on the list would necessarily join us when we make our break."
"My don, he is among those I believe could be counted upon to join us. It is not so much that he is loyal to you or disloyal to InterGang or Mysshroudedtery, but that his personal ideals and motivations are similar to yours. He's a man who... is strictly devoted to the reality of the inseparability of science, magic, and spirituality. I'm sure you yourself are at least passingly aware of the fundamental principles of sorretry, and that inseparability is generally considered to be the most important of those principles. While I'm sure not many Sorreters would debate that stance, in theory, these days more and more of them grow disinterested in active spirituality, and science as an aspect of magic has become something of a niche, a specialization within the broader field of magic. Most seem to concentrate on the magicks that have already been mastered, for generations. If science went into that mastery originally, they don't bother to give it more than a cursory thought, anymore. To them, most magic is simply magic, and science is only needed for truly complicated endeavors, experimental projects, and things such as genetic engineering, which was of course banned by Arch-bishop Ignico just over a century ago. Malone, meanwhile, is a scholar, an intellectual, a traditionalist... though, ironically, traditionalism might lately be considered as progressive by some as it is archaic by others. It challenges the status quo. So... your devotion to intellect and reason, combined with the idea of starting a new gang- a break from the status quo, itself- would undoubtedly appeal to his own sensibilities."
Illuminatus smiled and nodded. "Yes, of course. Actually, this brings to mind a conversation I once had with him. He mentioned to me that he found it ironic that all Sorreters are spirit-talkers, whereas on Earth, magic and religion- some religions, anyway- were frequently considered mutually exclusive, in direct opposition to one another. As were magic and science, science and religion. He said that, as much as all good Landians may love the idea of Earth in general, it is well understood that there are certain aspects of Earth culture which are best rejected, here. And he said he'd been growing concerned to see the recent trend among Sorreters to follow Earth's example in this matter, rather than reject it. Well... I believe I know what approach to take with him, then. Thank you, Bradford. That will be all."
The chief spy bowed his head, and exited the don's office. Barely had the door closed behind him, when Illuminatus took out a t-mail bubble and summoned her chief Sorreter. It took him just a few centhours to walk from his own office to the don's. While she waited, Illuminatus placed a quick call to an old friend.
She had just closed the t-mail connection, when her door's chime sounded. She immediately bid Malone enter. "By your leave, my don, I... have nothing to report, at the moment. What can I do for you, today?"
"I'd like you to translocate the two of us to Tanq, and the home of Lydia Hornpowder. I can provide you the precise coordinates. There's something I'd like for the three of us to discuss together....
And so, mere moments after handing Malone a scrap of paper with a set of spatial coordinates jotted on it, they joined hands, and suddenly found themselves in a living room, with all the curtains on the windows drawn tightly shut. There was a patch of magical illumination emanating from one wall.
"Ah, Larami," said the former don of InterGang's Tanq branch, "how good to see you. It's been awhile, hasn't it? And... chief Malone, was it? I'm sure we've met a few times."
"Yes, d-" he began, then amended, "um, ma'am. Dustin Malone." He shook her outstretched hand. "Nice to see you again."
"Please have a seat, my friends," Hornpowder said, waving her hand to indicate the couch behind them. Once they'd seated themselves, she sat down, herself, on an easy chair facing them. "So, Larami... your call a few centhours ago was unexpected, but much appreciated. I'd feared none of my old friends from work would want anything to do with me, after my dismissal."
"Yes, well," said don Illuminatus, "I was sorry to hear about that. Seems most unfair, to me. But of course, I consider you, as I do several InterGang associates, to be more than just 'friends from work.' We're friends, period." Turning momentarily to address Malone, she said, "Chief Malone... Dustin, if I may," (he nodded at this), "I don't suppose you and I have ever been quite that close. 'Friends from work' applies with us, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say 'friendly acquaintances.' I do think we're closer than just superior and subordinate, but... not really friends. At least, not so far. I'd like to change that, starting now."
"I... I don't know quite what to say, my don... or, Larami?" (She smiled and nodded her assent.) "I suppose, certainly, it would be an honor and a pleasure to call you a friend," he said genuinely. Her words had caught him quite off guard, but after just a moment's confusion and uncertainty, he found that he felt, just as he said, honored and pleased by the idea.
"Excellent! So, we're all friends here, then." Turning back to Hornpowder, she said, "Anyway, Lydia, of course you realize capo Mysshroudedtery wouldn't dream of telling her employees with whom they can or can't be friends."
"Good to know, though it begs the question of why you asked me to draw the curtains before you came."
"Ah... well, the fact that she wouldn't try to stop us from maintaining a friendship by no means implies that she truly trusts either of us. In fact, I daresay she trusts me less than she does you."
"Well, when she fired me, she did say that you deserved no less, but that... you're more valuable to the organization than I was, I'm afraid." Suddenly she felt a rush of embarrassment come over her. It showed on her face as she hurried to add, "Not that I think you should have been fired; what I mean to say is, uh-"
Illuminatus laughed warmly and held up a hand. "Don't give it a moment's concern, my friend! In a few centhours, you'll find the whole situation quite as amusing as I do. Which brings me to the point of my visit... But first, Dustin, I trust not only will we not be seen by prying eyes, but also...?"
"Uh, hmmm, yes? Oh, of course." He closed his eyes for a few moments, then said, "Well, no one will magically eavesdrop, you know. Scrying, or whatnot. I... well, there'll be no trace that I'm magically concealing the place, but then again, if anyone's trying and can't see or hear us, then..." he shrugged. "You know, they won't require actual evidence of magic to realize magic's involved. Which I suppose would seem rather suspicious. Speaking of which... why are we being so surreptitious, if I might make so bold as to inquire?"
"It is natural that you should wonder," replied Illuminatus. "And the explanation is quite simple: We're plotting to secede from InterGang."
Both Malone and Hornpowder were momentarily speechless. The first to regain their senses was Hornpowder, who said, "I beg your pardon? And, by the way, it's too late for me to secede."
Illuminatus smiled and said, "Of course, that's true." Dropping her smile, she addressed the more pertinent issue. "Well... hmmm. It's no secret that I've never been overly fond of our capo. I respect her intellect, to be sure, but... well, it's difficult to properly put into words. There are just various things about the way she operates that... don't feel quite right, to me. Granted, a part of this may stem from resentment over the fact that she no more likes me than I do her. But, of course, she respects my intellect, and appreciates the fact that I do a damned good job, if I may say so. I also admit that there are times I knowingly test her tolerance, whether for my own amusement, or in pursuit of my own goals. Until quite recently, it would never have occurred to me to put those goals ahead of the good of InterGang, in spite of whatever I might feel about Mysshroudedtery. But now... well, I wouldn't care to say that any of her actions are, in any likelihood, to the potential detriment of the organization, but..." she shrugged, "I simply feel that my methods and hers are no longer sufficiently compatible as to remain in the same organization. I think InterGang will continue to fare as well as ever under her august leadership, and perhaps all the better without me. I daresay from this point on, our mutually discordant natures would prove... well, I'd be as much a hindrance as an asset. It would, however, be disingenuous to say that my leaving would be entirely altruistic; to be sure, I've no desire to start at square one, employment-wise. Nor, indeed, would I have many options, as a known gangster.
"So, I ask you, what is a person in my position to do? Honest work is not an option. Any manner of entry-level position is unthinkable. I certainly couldn't defect to some rival gang; it would be too demeaning to me, and they'd have no reason to trust me. The only thing to do, as I see it, is to form my own gang. Naturally, I'd take as many people as I could with me, from my branch of InterGang-"
Hornpowder chuckled at this. "She did say, losing you would be tantamount to losing Tonad."
Illuminatus flashed a quick smile. "Well, I take that as a high compliment. Though I daresay, both her gang and mine would find ourselves outmatched by LandOrder, in that village, immediately after the split. Luckily, as I think we're all well aware, world events at present are sufficiently tenuous for all gangs, that no one's likely to make any sudden plays for outright dominance. Certainly, don Breakhead, while I'd never call him clever, isn't a fool, either. He rarely does anything rash, specifically because he knows he's not clever. It would be understandable for him to be tempted to try to wipe us- by which I mean both InterGang, and my new organization, which I'm tentatively calling the Illuminati- to wipe us out. But he wouldn't move without the consent of capo Primus, who I most assuredly would call clever. And while I'm sure even he would be tempted to take advantage of the upheaval of my secession, he'd have presence of mind enough to wait a bit, just to see how certain other situations play themselves out. The Chaos, the Syndicate, the elections... it's all rather unpredictable, just at the moment."
All three of them were silent for a centhour. Finally, Malone spoke. "So, obviously I'm one of the people you intend to take with you. May I ask how it is you feel secure in blatantly announcing your intentions, when I'm still, technically, a servant of InterGang?"
A very slight smiled played about Illuminatus's lips, and she regarded her chief Sorreter in silence for about half a centhour. Finally she replied, "There are a number of ways I could choose to answer that. I do not say that any one of them would constitute outright deception, though most might be intentionally misleading, in some wise. However, I don't desire to insult your intelligence. It should come as no shock to either of you that my first and most trusted ally is my chief spy, Bradford Milkman. He has, for a short while now, been engaged in the dual effort of sussing out who among my ranks might be operating as spies for capo Mysshroudedtery, and ascertaining which of my people would most likely be willing to join me, at whatever point I openly make my break from InterGang. You, chief Malone, were on the list of those most likely to be loyal to me over Mysshroudedtery. He reminded me, just before I called you to my office, of the kind of man you are, of what you hold important. It was something I'd already known, but... you have to understand, I deal with so many people... my subordinates, my allies in other branches, my enemies, not to mention friends and family who aren't even in the business, and countless inconsequential people in gangs or not.... I imagine it's much the same for everyone, actually. No one can have instant, total recall of every fact they've ever learned about everyone they've ever met. Still, I think if I'd taken it upon myself to come up with a list of those I could trust, it would have been a shorter list than he presented me, but you certainly would have been on it.
"What he reminded me of, chiefly, was your dedication to the princple of magic, religion, and science all being fundamentally intertwined. In an immediate sense, this has nothing to do with InterGang, nor with me. The point he made was that you are a traditionalist, and that traditionalism goes against the current status quo, in Sorret. And, while I cannot say I believe he was wrong in comparing that situation with, well, the status quo in InterGang... I think he may have somewhat oversimplified the matter. 'Status quo' is a term which is easily bandied about, though what it actually means is the subject of infinite variation. Even looking at things from a single perspective, the 'status quo' in one matter may be seen as negative, and in another matter may be positive, while in yet another matter may be essentially indifferent. My chief spy, a most competent man in his field, and a dear friend, seemed to think that by breaking away from InterGang, I would be upsetting one status quo, and that would automatically appeal to you, as you might wish to upset the status quo among Sorreters. This might very well be the case, but the one does not necessarily correspond to the other. I daresay there are any number of things on the Land to which the term 'status quo' might reasonably be applied, that not a single person would dream of upsetting.
"Nor, to be sure, would our secession have any impact whatever on the establishment in Sorret. We've nothing to do with them. I daresay you yourself, or any Sorreter employed by any gang, would be looked upon with contempt by the 'honest' Sorreters. Though what's meant by 'honest' is certainly up for debate. Many of them work for the Second Order, and while there's nothing inherently dishonest or dishonorable about that... I can't help but wonder how many of them truly know what their employers are about? Or, indeed, how many of their immediate employers know what their superiors are about? We in some of the Land's major gangs know just a bit of what underhanded methods were used in bringing about the Second Order, and I'm sure there were many more things we don't know about, which would prove just as... disreputable, if made known. And many of these practices must surely continue to this very day, in spite of very clear laws against them.
"...You may well ask where I'm going with all of this. Do I mean to suggest that because those working, in theory, within the law, are themselves, wittingly or unwittingly, engaged in criminal acts, that that means those openly engaged in criminal organizations are... well, the same? Ay, there's the rub: we're not the same. They have chosen a path that they perceive as good, and in most cases, they're probably right. We, on the other hand, have chosen a path which is unarguably bad. We may each have had our own reasons for choosing such a path; some of us may feel we had no choice. And, to be sure, no one on the Land is entirely good or entirely bad. But that doesn't matter. Neither individuals nor society nor courts nor any authority bothers much about shades of grey; there are the good guys and the bad guys, and that's it. I suppose the potential for redemption always exists, in theory; certainly it's a popular theme in fiction. But in reality, it's pretty much too late for any of us. We are what we are. As they say on Earth, we made our beds, now we have to lie in them.
"But!" she exclaimed, sounding excited for a moment, before sighing and closing her eyes. After a few moments, she opened them again, and continued somberly, "It is a young world. A young civilization. Things have changed much over the generations, and will no doubt continue to do so forever. Not just here, but on every world in God's creation. I would not be so arrogant as to suggest that anything we do will have truly lasting impact. However, the part those such as we played in changing the world a decade ago was greater than any of us could have expected. With that in mind, who's to say that we definitely couldn't change it again? Maybe we won't; but if we don't even try, we certainly won't. And whatever happens... well, it all becomes a part of history, for good or for ill. One way or another, every action taken by anyone affects the future. What we do may not last in any way we could predict, or even recognize in the future. If we start down a new path, and then were transported a dozen or a hundred or a thousand years into the future, we might see absolutely nothing resembling the path we had seen before us; but whatever we do see will, unarguably, be different than it would have been if we'd chosen yet another path. All anyone can ever do is make their best guess as to what action will yield what results, in the short term. The long term will take care of itself, and is the concern of those who come after us; but they, if not those in the distant future, but they, our immediate successors, will in fact be influenced by what we do. And when I say 'our successors,' I don't mean just those who follow us in any gangs, but those who inherit the world in its totality, the reality in which they find themselves. Everyone! For all anyone can do is try to relate to the world as it exists when they come into it, and either accept it unconditionally, or do their best to change it as they will. But what they will cannot help but be informed by what is...."
"Wait, wait, wait," said Malone, shaking his head. "This is all some rather... grand philosophy. But I think I've lost sight of just what the Hell you're talking about."
"Ah," said Illuminatus with a sheepish grin. "Well, I was sort of making it up as I went along, and I guess I'd lost sight of it, myself. Okay, fine, then. Let's get back to solid ground. You don't like where general Sorreter society is headed, do you?"
"Not particularly, no."
"And I'm not a big fan of where InterGang is headed. The two things, on the surface, may not seem- may not be directly related, but the solution to both problems needn't be unrelated. I'll be honest, when I first decided to break away from InterGang, it was mainly an ego thing. In fact, it's always going to be mainly an ego thing. But not just... a self-centered ego, but rather an ego I entertain on behalf of Landkind. I believe in reason, in knowledge, in truth. These are not things that the general public has anything against; yet somehow, few people seem to make any real effort to achieve these ideals, either in themselves or in society as a whole. I don't for a moment suppose that a gang, which by its very nature is opposed to society, is at all likely to affect deep change upon the attitudes of that society... Most people will look at what we do, and do the opposite, on general principle. But they are the ones without imagination. Without drive. There will be a few individuals with imagination, with ambition, without prejudice, who will look at the world as a whole, seeing that something's wrong with it, and striving to find any hint of what can be done to make it right. And those few may see that 'right' can occur even in the depths of what's so clearly 'wrong.' They may follow our example, even while decrying us to the public. And the public will see that what they say is good, and that fact will blind them to the reality that what those few say is the same as what we do...."
"Surely," said Malone, "it won't be exactly what we do."
"Well, no," admitted Illuminatus. "Not exactly. After all, we'll still be committing crimes, and all. But you're missing the larger picture, here."
"That being, I suppose, that our Sorreters will engage in traditional magic?"
"That... would be one small part of it, yes. The part with which you need concern yourself, as First Sorreter of the Illuminati. I, of course, would oversee many other parts, some of which would, with any luck, directly influence those outsiders who ultimately affect change in the world, and some which would be... you know, just run of the mill gang stuff. We all still need to make a living, after all."
Malone mulled this over for a bit, then said, "Good enough."
Illuminatus grinned and turned again to Hornpowder. "So, what say you?"
"Well, my cousin promised me a position in my clan's unicorn business. I'd start with small, demeaning, terribly unpleasant tasks, but there'd be every chance for advancement, much swifter than for non-related employees. I could go from mucking stalls to harvesting horns to selling powder at market... maybe in a few years I could work my way up to an office job. I suppose what you're offering is right away becoming don of a Tanq branch of the Illuminati?"
Illumiantus nodded. "If you think you could poach some of your former subordinates from InterGang, and soon scare up some new employees from... wherever."
"You should know, when I was being fired, I... kind of tried to plead my case by saying what I'd done was no worse than what you'd done."
"A harrowing situation, I'm sure, which naturally made you grasp at straws. I don't blame you a bit. Especially considering, as you, I, and Mysshroudedtery all know... you weren't wrong."
Hornpowder sat in silent contemplation for a centhour before suddenly laughing. "It really is ironic, you know, that my mistake was an innocent attempt to do good by InterGang, and it got me fired; whereas your mistake- and there's no use denying it, old friend- was not nearly so innocent. I don't know if it was a premeditated attempt to start the ball rolling toward this secession, or if it was your subconscious setting things in motion without your even realizing it, or... maybe it was just another of your habitual tests of the capo's tolerance, as you mentioned earlier. Whatever the case... your 'mistake' was overlooked, and still ultimately led to insurrection within the gang."
"Ah, irony," mused Illuminatus. "There's no limit to the fun it can wreak. Still, I wouldn't really call my plan an 'insurrection.' That would only apply if we actively fought Mysshroudedtery, tried to overthrow her. I've no intention of doing any such thing. We're just leaving. If she tries to stop us... well, then it becomes another matter. It'll be up to her, when the time comes." Turning to Malone, she said, "Meanwhile, Dustin, I think you once mentioned to me something called 'bittrickle,' which Mysshroudedtery uses to keep her location undetectable. What I'm wondering is if the same trick could be used to make our t-mail conversations unhackable. Our trace-blockers and anti-hacking spells are all well and good when dealing with the Tonad police, but if we want to be safe from the likes of InterVil or Mysshroudedtery's top Sorreters, we'll need to level the playing field...."
Four people sat at a modest table in a modest kitchen, eating a modest lunch, a bit later in the day than any of them were accustomed to. Nor were any of them accustomed to frequent displays of modesty in any aspect of their lives, but every now and then, one amongst this group insisted upon it. That one happened to be the only woman in the group; she was a handsome woman of about 50, and her name was Emily Illustri. Seated to her right was her husband, Xander, a tall, imperious man with dark hair just beginning to be touched with grey. On either side of the table perpendicular to the elder Illustris were their 28-year-old son, Macen, and their younger son, Benj, who would be turning 23 in a few weeks. Macen and Benj both strongly resembled their father, in both physical features and the intensity of their convictions; all four Illustris- as well as the rest of the clan, for that matter- had a regal bearing about them, which they came by naturally. None of them, of course, had been born with the name 'Illustri,' as surnames had only officially been in existence on the Land (discounting the island of the Elves) for about eight years, now. However, even before the surname law was passed, Xander had known what he wanted his illustrious clan to be called. He had been, in fact, one of those chiefly instrumental in writing the law and getting it passed. So, despite Triscot being the fifteenth village in line of priority (determined by the order of each village's founding) during the first census, he'd long since had the name reserved, on the chance that it might have occurred to anyone else to claim it. What's more, the clan that came to be known as 'Illustri' had been building its wealth and power for generations, and had been one of the main clans involved in the founding of Triscot in 771. They maintained ties at the highest level in practically every village on the Land; most importantly First Village, and Xander was a close, personal friend of King Demos Royal himself (even if neither man truly liked the other, and both of them knew it; at least they both defined 'friendship' the same way, and both got precisely what they wanted out of the relationship).
Xander was not in the best of moods, today, and for him, that was definitely saying something. In the first place, he never liked these 'intimate family gatherings' upon which his wife insisted. Nor did he like the fact that she'd insisted, when she married into the clan, on building this particular room, in the manor that had been built by his forebears over a century ago. He consoled himself that, but for this one modest room, his clan lived on the most opulent estate in all of Triscot. He also didn't like that his wife, on the occasions when she insisted on dining in this room, also insisted on doing the cooking herself. It wasn't that he didn't like her cooking; after all, she'd had lessons from an early age, from some of the Land's greatest chefs. To be honest, her cooking was actually better than that of the people they employed to cook their meals for them- even when she specifically tried her hand at 'modest' cooking. But it was the principle of the thing: she never could make him understand what it was about pretending to be commoners that so appealed to her. Her clan had been nearly as affluent as his, and she'd been brought up the same way he had, to look down on anyone not of noble birth. And most of the time, she did. He suffered all these incomprehensible inconsistencies of character, as he saw them, because by and large, the two of them saw eye to eye about practically everything. He truly loved her, and was always willing to do whatever he could to make her happy... but that didn't mean he couldn't grumble and brood about it.
However, none of that was what was chiefly putting him in a foul mood, today; it merely exacerbated that mood. What was really troubling him was Benj. He loved both his sons, of course, but the younger of the two frequently made it damned hard to do so. Another thing he could never understand was Emily's insistence that Benj was just like him, though he supposed she just meant they were both stubborn. To Xander's way of thinking, the more important point was that they were stubborn in different ways. Even so, Emily always said those ways were not nearly so radically different as they seemed to her husband and her son. And now and then, even Xander had to admit she had a point- at least their views were far closer to each other than they were to the views of commoners, or even of that sorry excuse for a 'noble,' Adam; the Land was well rid of him and his clan of bleeding hearts. He rarely expressed this opinion to Benj, knowing that he'd had a sort of friendship with Adam's son, though he was secretly glad that his own son had clearly won the rivalry he'd once had with his childhood friend.
Nevertheless, there were various differences in the worldviews held by Xander and Benj, and one in particular had been frustrating him to no end, of late. "You are coming with us to the rally, tonight," he said emphatically.
Benj carefully set down his fork, dabbed his mouth with the corner of his napkin, took a sip of his tea, and dabbed his mouth again. "We've discussed this, Father. I hardly see the point."
"The point, Son, is that this clan officially supports Demos. We are, in fact, his most prominent supporters in Triscot, and it is therefore of the utmost importance that we display a united front at events such as this."
"But you already know that I'm going to vote for Darkstrider."
Xander closed his eyes, as his fist tightened around his own fork. He did all he could to force himself to remain calm. After all, Benj was right: it's not like this was news to him. And so, as calmly as he could, he replied, "But perhaps if you just listen to the king's speech, you'll come to understand why he's the best candidate. I don't feel you've given him a fair chance-"
"A fair chance, Father, to demonstrate what kind of a king he'd be? We already know what kind of king he'll be: exactly the same kind he's been for two terms, now. If that's not a fair chance, I don't know what is. I fully understand why you want him to remain king, and it's not because you think he's a great ruler. It's because he's helped your businesses- which have in turn helped him, with campaign contributions- as well as increasing your own political clout. But at this point, I think... well, you know what they say: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I've nothing against the former part of the maxim, but I don't feel that it necessitates the latter. On the contrary, the more money the commoners have, the more they can afford to spend on things that nobles like us provide. So, when the poor get richer, the rich would get exponentially richer. But even if you fail to accept that, for fear of lessening our status by comparison- and I do agree with that fear, I admit- at the very least you have to accept that, whether the poor get richer, or get poorer, or stay just as they are... we no longer have need of Demos Royal to help us out. In fact, we never really had need of him, at all. We were rich and powerful long before he came to power. I think the biggest reason you support him is because he supports the concept of nobility, a concept our clan has long had about itself, but which was never fully recognized by the general public until the Coming. Nor should it have been easy to make it seem a good concept to the public; but Demos, of course, has always been a master of swaying public opinion on various matters." Benj scoffed, "It never ceases to amaze me how easily he can sway fools to believe in the the desirability of that which would naturally seem to be far from their best interests. In this case, I admit it was a neat trick he used, reciting Earth fairy tales about kings and castles and knights and chivalry and so forth, to give the rabble a sense of romance about being peasants, themselves. I'll give him that much. But I'm sure you can't mean to suggest that whatever he says tonight will sway me; you haven't raised any fools, Father. And while I want the commoners to know their place as much as you do, it's easier to keep them looking at things the way we want them to if we actually do things that benefit them, even if it's mostly token benefits. I'm telling you, the longer Demos stays in power, the sooner the peasants will realize their humble existences aren't nearly as romantic as they've been led to believe. And then all Hell will break loose. And then what will nobles like us be left with, Father? Our estate will end up just like Adam's."
At times like this, Xander's mind often swirled with a mix of anger at his son, and pride in him. He took a few moments to settle his thoughts, and finally smiled grimly. "Just one more term. That's all I need. We all know that whatever we do won't really matter; neither Darkstrider nor anyone else has any real chance of beating Demos in the election. He'll be king for one more term, and after that, I don't care. Because in this election, I need to be on the winning side, more than ever. I've spent eight years as a village councillor, but next year... Chief Councillor Noblesse-Oblige will not be seeking reelection. The goodwill he's garnered among the voting public here in Triscot is all that has kept me from becoming Chief Councillor, myself. When he steps down, I'll finally have a chance to advance my career, and show not just Triscot but the Land what I'm truly capable of. And then, in the next world elections..." now Xander's smile turned more pleasant, at least in his own mind, though even he would have admitted, if he had seen his own smile, that it was tinged with just a hint of something ominous, as he said, "Well, maybe then will be the time for the Land to get a new king." After a few moments, he stopped smiling, stuck his fork into something on his plate without even looking down at it; lifting his fork, he pointed it at his son, and added, "And I'm not talking about Quinn Darkstrider."
"You're going." And he put the fork in his mouth.
Benj pouted. His brother smiled. "This is great, Mom," said Macen.
She smiled back at him and said, "Have some more potatoes, dear. Benj, you too. Honestly... you and your father are going to give yourselves indigestion, and I won't have you blaming it on my cooking."
"Sorry, Mom," said Benj. Looking at his father, he said, "I'll go. And I won't say anything for or against Demos. But you can't command my vote as you can my presence."
"Fair enough." Turning to his wife, he smiled and said, "Emily, the carrots are perfection. Sometimes I don't even remember why I complain about your desire to cook, you really are the best."
Dirk Noir XIX, don of the Black Profits, sat in his favorite easychair, staring into a crackling fireplace, which at the moment served as the only source of illumination in a darkened room. He was quietly enjoying the chair, the fire, and a tumbler of fine brandy. His mind was essentially devoid of coherent thought, which was a state he liked to adopt, whenever he could afford the time. He was only mildly and momentarily irritated when this state was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come," he said.
A shaft of artificial lighting intruded upon the room as the door opened, but just as quickly vanished as his visitor closed the door behind her. "Good afternoon, old friend. I trust I'm not disturbing you?"
"Not at all, Gillian. Please, have a seat. Care for some brandy?"
"Don't mind if I do," she said, pouring herself a glass. Once it was full, she clinked it with the one Dirk held out, then seated herself. She stared into the fire for half a centhour before saying, "It really is quite warm enough, in our climate zone. Most people would think you odd to keep a fire going like this. Still... I must admit, there's something comforting about it."
Dirk nodded. "Yes. More importantly, it helps me lose myself in thought, or else simply clear my head of all the... clutter. It can be rather stressful at times, being in charge of so much, and trying to keep my two subtly entangled lives from becoming... excessively entangled."
"Ah yes, a complicated web, indeed."
"Of course, I don't need to tell you that, Chief. You walk the same line I do. Speaking of which... I suppose we'd best get down to business. You're here for your weekly report on your department's activities. I knew that was coming up today, I'm afraid I just lost track of time."
"One of the dangers of indulging in clearing one's head. But you deserve it." She smiled as she added, "I must apologize for the necessity of re-cluttering it."
With a subtle smirk, the don replied, "Think nothing of it."
"Right. Well... as far as our more conventional gang activities go, there's nothing requiring your attention. Been a slow week for sorretry. My sources have informed me of various things, such as Poss Primus arriving in First Village yesterday, but I'm sure Warren has already made his report. It is, after all, more a matter for his department."
"Yes. So... what news of our ulterior agenda?"
"I've been to the Oracle. Apparently, Demos's twin daughters are going to attempt a coup in the year 930. No indication as to whether they'll be successful, nor whether we even want them to be. But presumably, it will be of interest to us. I've got my strategists thinking how best to use this knowledge, of course."
"Hmmm. So, the king is going to have daughters. I hadn't even heard... I mean, do we know if Beverly's even pregnant, yet?"
Gillian shook her head and shrugged. "No idea. But even if she is, I guess they won't be more than 17 or so, at the time. One wouldn't think they'd be old enough to consider a coup unless they get themselves born in the next few years."
"Yes. Although, come to think of it, do we even know if she's their mother? I thought she and Demos-"
"Yeah, I'd thought of that. But you know how it works; the Oracle tells us as little as possible. For all I know, they could have already been born to some unknown mistress." She snorted derisively, saying, "God, I can't believe I even know that subword. I doubt even Demos would cheat on his spouse, but if anyone on the Land did, it would be him. Who else would be psychologically capable of such a thing?"
Dirk shook his head. "Hell if know. It's not like this is bloody Earth."
"My point exactly." She sighed and ran her hand through her hair, trying to calm her nerves. "Sorry to go off on a tangent. I just get so irritated by the Oracle, sometimes. I mean, I know all the reasons we can't be shown our own future actions, and I do appreciate the free will that grants us. Still, I can't help wishing we'd get more of a clue about these things, now and then. I know our organization has grown better, over the generations, at piecing things together, but... dammit, don't you ever question the wisdom of entrusting our entire future to a series of vague and somewhat sloppily handwritten messages?"
Dirk leaned in close and patted his chief Sorreter's shoulder. "I know how you feel, believe me," he said with a warm smile. Leaning back in his chair, he continued, "Just try to remember that however scant the information we're provided may be, it's information that no one else in the world could possibly have. Already we know the basic political state of the world at the time that coup attempt will take place. So, even if someone outside the Black Profits were told any one of the tidbits we're shown, it would mean less to them than it does to us. No one else would even know who'll be in power at the time. So, we have a decided edge in choosing how to position ourselves. For both aspects of our organization. Besides, considering the messages come from the very future you speak of entrusting to those messages... well, how can we not trust them? What possible reason could there be for the Writer, whose ultimate success it is our sworn duty to ensure, to send us prophecies which do anything other than give us the ability to steadily build toward that success?"
Gillian sighed, took a sip of her brandy, then looked at Dirk and smiled. "Of course, you're right. But speaking of positioning ourselves, I heard you talked with don Illuminatus the other day. How'd that go? I suppose you haven't changed your mind...?"
The don finished off his own brandy and set down his glass. "We've talked about this at length, and I agree it's a shame we can't risk involving ourselves with them just yet. But the council is right, it's too early. I'm sure the time for an alliance with the Illuminati will come eventually, but there are more important things to focus on, for the time being. It's going to be tricky enough working with Des'Caina without LandOrder finding out, and Demontalk without InterGang's knowledge. They both have reason enough to be loyal to their respective gangs-" he smirked for a moment when he thought to add, "and look, already I'm speaking as if Des'Caina works for LandOrder. That's still a little ways off yet. Like I said, it's nice to have an edge. Anyway, I digress. They'll both be loyal to their gangs, so it won't be easy to ensure their silence about their involvement with us. Des'Caina's been good about it so far, but... we haven't even approached Demontalk yet. If either of them were to find out about the other-"
"How would they find out? Our people are masters of discretion."
"Of course, but don't forget, both sorcerers are spirit-talkers, and there's no telling whether the spirits they talk to, especially demons, will be aware of our involvement, much less whether they'd choose to share that information with Des'Caina and Demontalk."
"True, but I strongly suspect the demons who work with them will have just as much need of their own discretion as we have of ours. They'd be more likely to confront us directly than to expose us to their allies. And if they tried to stop us without those two finding out... well, don't you forget that I'm a spirit-talker, myself, as are all the Sorreters in my department. We have spirit friends of our own who would ensure a stalemate if any demons tried to interfere with our plans."
"So, we might as well simply ignore the entire spiritual aspect of the situation, and think in more mundane terms. It's still best to exercise caution. The point I was getting to is that juggling two sorcerers is enough to worry about without adding Malone to the mix. Especially considering he will likely be far more loyal to Illuminatus than the elves are to their respective dons."
"Yes, but we weren't talking about approaching him behind his don's back, or rather his capo-to-be's back; we were talking about approaching Illuminatus herself."
Dirk sighed. "I know, I know. Actually, I wish we could just take over all three intervillage gangs, but our organization hasn't survived for five centuries by making bold, highly visible moves. We thrive in the shadows, but in the light... well, we'd be about as healthy as the subjects of Des'Caina's secret project would be," he concluded with a grin.
"Actually," said Gillian, "as to the matter of light vis-à-vis that project-"
Dirk waved a hand dismissively. "Yes, I'm aware. You mentioned it in a previous report. It was just a joke. My point is, the Black Profits have built up a most useful air of mystery about ourselves; and in fact, allowing our existence to be recognized even as a conventional, single-village gang was a tough decision for the council to make."
"Not to mention adding that second stress-inducing dimension to our lives, that we were speaking of earlier."
"Quite. So, openly aligning ourselves with a brand new intervillage gang would be a little too suspicious. It would be counter to everything we've allowed outsiders to think about us, all this time. Not to mention the fact that it would be an impossible move to hide from Des'Caina and Demontalk. In any event, the reasons that we're even interested in those two, and Malone, will each come to pass at different points in time. Des'Caina's project first, which is why we contacted him first. Then Demontalk's, which is why we'll approach her next. Best to wait until after the world- or at least InterGang and LandOrder- learn of Des'Caina's project. We've reason enough to believe that that's what will inspire Demontalk to begin her own project... assuming she hasn't done already."
"Which we're pretty sure she hasn't."
"Yes. And if she hasn't, then obviously Malone won't even conceive of the project of his that we're interested in for quite some time yet. Which means time is on our side; we can afford to wait."
Gillian sat in silence for a centhour, a dour expression on her face. Then suddenly, she chuckled and shook her head. "We are silly, aren't we? Always going over things we both know perfectly well, in private, after listening to the whole council drum those things into us; or we into them. Why do we do that, do you suppose?"
Dirk shrugged. "Because we're human? Even foreknowledge of the future can't stop us second-guessing ourselves. Especially when logic doesn't necessarily support our personal feelings."
"True. Then again, I suppose it could also be that we hope subsequent discussions of the same matters might lead us to think of new justifications for those feelings. For example, I was thinking during the council meeting on this matter, but didn't say... are we sure, I mean absolutely sure that we couldn't support the creation of the Illuminati without anyone outside that group learning of our support? As I said, our people are good at discretion, but we're not the only ones. Surely it takes some skill at hiding things to plot a secession, as Illuminatus's people are."
"You're not wrong; it's not impossible. But being possible doesn't make it any less risky. And in spite of Larami Illuminatus's skill at discretion, we mustn't overlook another of her traits: she is overly ambitious. There's a saying on Earth, you know: 'Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile.' As I said, there's an air of mystery about our organization, and that's a double-edged sword. For every benefit it gives us, it gives us a drawback; sometimes the benefit and drawback are one and the same, depending on context. You know, the council made its decision about how to respond to Illuminatus's inquiry before she even made it. And even without knowledge of the future, it was entirely predictable that she would be interested in us, because of the very curiosity that our mystique naturally engenders."
"We're hardly the only gang she's approached about the possibility of either alliance or merger."
"No, that's true. She needs all the allies she can get, so it's best to ask as many people as she can, while still keeping things quiet. But I don't doubt that no gang is of quite as much interest to her as we are. I suppose that's another point in our favor: even if we disappoint her in the present, she'll likely still be open to alliance in the future, when it suits us. But if we joined her prematurely, she'd surely do as much digging as she thought she could get away with. There's no telling how much she'd learn about us, and that could prove disastrous to our ultimate purpose. If we avoid acting rashly, she will eventually become our tool; otherwise, we might risk becoming one of her tools. And even if we kept her reined in, her... enthusiasm... would make it all the more difficult to hide our alliance from others."
"Ah, well. I guess you're right. I know when I'm beat. They do have another saying on Earth: 'Patience is a virtue.' So I'll be patient. Meanwhile, we still haven't decided how to play the whole Chaos angle. They, of course, are hopelessly entangled in the destinies of all these gangs we've been speaking of, and the world at large. Surely we should somehow insinuate our influence into that group, if we can do it subtly enough."
"Actually, I had a thought today after my meeting with Warren. He mentioned a LandOrder spy named Jasp Underground, who is presently serving as his gang's liaison with the Chaos; and who, it turns out, may soon be heading to Woodstockade. I'm thinking it might be a good idea to approach him there, and introduce myself. It's been awhile since I've visited Des'Caina, after all."
"Hmmm. Worth a shot, if you think it's safe." Dirk started to speak, but Gillian held up a hand and said, "I know, you know what you're doing. Obviously you've had plenty of practice at steering conversations with outsiders precisely the way you want, without revealing anything too dangerous." She smiled and added, "Anyway, the fact that Warren knew about a matter internal to LandOrder proves that our conventional spies can often come in even handier than the Oracle..."
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