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Chapter 38
10 Sp'mo' (Ha'day)

1

"Welcome back, Chief!" exclaimed Cabbit Atwater, when Jasp Underground and Merril RD translocated into the office of the chief spy of LandOrder's Tonad branch, Ha'day morning. Turning to RD, she amended, "Oh, sorry, I mean, Chiefs. Anyway, how was your trip? Chief RD, I know before you left, you said you hadn't talked to your friend in a few years, and you weren't sure he'd be happy to see you. I hope... your fears were unfounded?"

"I wouldn't go that far," said the chief Sorreter, "but at least our reunion wasn't quite as awkward as I feared. I think we'll be... keeping in touch, from now on. Regardless of whether he ends up joining LandOrder, or not. So, that's nice. But now, I need to report to don Breakhead. If you'll excuse me..."

"Of course. Have a nice day!"

Chief RD exited through the door, rather than translocating. When he was gone, Cabbit turned back to Jasp. "So?"

"Well, it was... interesting. I never could have imagined... what I learned. And when capo Primus hears RD's report, I'm not sure he'll be so keen to recruit Des'Caina to our side. At least, I personally rather hope he won't. But..." he shrugged, and sighed. "I dunno. It's all so weird, and kind of scary. No, not 'kind of'; it's totally scary. Which is not to say Des'Caina couldn't be an incredible asset to the organization, but... damn. Just, damn." He sighed again, then continued. "But something else happened while I was there, more or less unrelated to the purpose of my visit. I met someone I never expected to meet in my life. And in spite of the fact that it's someone I previously- hell, someone just about anyone in any gang on the Land would have been interested in meeting, I'm not sure now how I feel about that either." He shook his head. "You know, I once heard a Terran curse that goes, 'May you live in interesting times.' Until now, I never really understood why that was supposed to be a curse, rather than a blessing, but after the day I had yesterday in Woodstockade... I totally get it."

"Well, come on! After a set-up like that, you can't leave me hanging! I want every single detail, and I want it now."

Jasp grinned. "Is that an order, Boss?"

Cabbit grinned right back. "Sure is. Now start talking."

"Fine, fine." He walked to the right-hand side of his desk, where he could reach a drawer in front. He opened it, pulled out a bottle and two tumblers, set them on the desk, and closed the drawer. Cabbit, who had been sitting behind Jasp's desk, stood up, and was about to offer Jasp his chair, but he preemptively said, "No no, you've made it clear that you're in charge here, so you should stay as you were." She sat back down.

Jasp opened the bottle, filled both glasses, then pulled up a chair to sit in front of his own desk. Picking up one of the glasses, he said, "Technically, we're both on duty, so we shouldn't have too much of this. But trust me... we're going to need a little." He took a small sip, set his glass back on the desk, and began his story....

2

As you know, I called Chief RD Wor'ginday morning, he translocated to Triscot, and then translocated me back here. I met with don Breakhead for a little while, then met with you and the rest of the department, got your report on all that had been happening in my absence. Then I went home, to prepare for my trip to Woodstockade. That didn't really take much time, so basically I spent the rest of the day settling back into my home. God, it was good to sleep in my own bed. Anyway, yesterday morning I came back to work, met with Chief RD, and we translocated to the home of Silas Des'Caina. RD had already talked to him via t-mail, so he was expecting us.

Nevertheless, there was a definite tension between RD and Des'Caina. As you mentioned when we got back, RD had said before we left Tonad that he hadn't spoken with Des'Caina since 909. It was once we actually met with Des'Caina that I learned why. It actually goes back to an incident in 902... which, if you'll recall, is the year before the elves rejoined human society, joining the war on the side of the Order. Durell had secretly contacted the elves in 901, and was trying to convince them to support Bishop Kizin's Plan. Somehow, Demos learned about the elves in 902, possibly from Durell himself, and wanted to meet them, mainly so he'd have a chance to start making business deals there for his trading company, before any other human traders had any idea where the elves were. Durell apparently had his own plan to use Demos to further his own goals, and he assigned RD- or I should say Merril, because of course this was before the surname law- to translocate Demos to Woodstockade, where he met with Chief Des'Eller. What Merril didn't know at the time was that Durell agreed to send Demos there so that he could quell the rumors Des'Eller had been hearing about the Plan calling for enhanced gang activity. I didn't get the full scoop on all that went into that, but part of it involved Demos informing the Woodstockade police of any gangsters he might uncover. And he told them that Merril was a gangster, even though at the time, he wasn't. So, Merril translocated away before the elven police could capture him. And that was basically the incident that forced him to join a gang, after all, and also forced him to move away from Sorret, fearing Durell and his followers.

Anyway, before all that, Merril visited Des'Caina, who he'd been visiting every so often since they first met, in 895, while Merril was still an apprentice of Cirna's. Actually, it was when they started talking about that, that something occurred to me. I turned to RD and said, "Something Cabbit said the other day didn't sink in until later. She said you knew Des'Caina before the Coming. I've been meaning to ask you how that was possible, since I thought Durell was the first person to contact the elves since they were banished. Just now, when you were talking about the business with Durell and Demos, I assumed that must have been how you met. Even if it wasn't technically before the Coming, at least it was before I would have expected you to have met any elves. But now you say you met in 895?"

RD said, "Yes, well, Durell certainly had no idea I knew him when he assigned me to bring Demos to Woodstockade. In fact, I found it kind of amusing that he provided me with coordinates to translocate to. Of course, I didn't tell him that I didn't need coordinates. As for how we met, it was actually random chance. I've long had a habit of scrying random uninhabited areas of the world, just for fun, to see what I could see. One day, my scry happened to intercept Silas's scry, though he actually knew the place he was scrying. It wasn't far outside Woodstockade, though there were no other elves around. It's hard to explain to a non-magician, but we each immediately realized someone else was scrying the same coordinates. So, I translocated to that spot. Silas saw me arrive, via his scry, and I held up a note I'd written, which was just my name. I knew that translocation of inanimate objects had been done prior to the elves' banishment, but not of people, and I had no idea if the elves had developed it that far on their own, or not. However, they would certainly have had t-mail, which presumably would still work on the same principle as ours. Which means a caller would need to know the name of the person they wanted to call. So, once he knew my name, he had merely to activate a t-mail bubble and say 'Silas Des'Caina for Merill of Sorret'- of course at that point humans didn't have actual surnames- and I received the call on my own bubble. We made plans to meet in that spot, the next day- which was the earliest he could get out there. We became friends, and taught each other various things, magical and otherwise. Castor Des'Eller may think he was the first elf to translocate himself, but in fact that honor belongs to Silas, after I taught him the skill... even if he could never tell anyone. But hey, he's used to keeping secrets..."

I asked just what that was supposed to me, and my question brought the discussion back right where it had been before I interrupted with my earlier question. They had met in 895, and it was then that Merril had met some of the children Silas was raising. They were mostly foundlings, and so used 'Foundling' as a surname. Of course you know, elves did have surnames, already, even if humans didn't. The first child he ever took in was Girarg Foundling, who was born in 888. So he was about seven years old, when Merril met him. Another boy Silas spent a lot of time with was Brahm Des'Merrick, who was a year younger than Girarg. He wasn't a foundling, but rather the child of some of Des'Caina's associates. Apparently, Silas was like an uncle to him; they were in fact distantly related, so thinking of him as an uncle, or even a father figure, wasn't entirely figurative, but not quite literal, either. By the time Merril met Silas in 895, there were some other foundlings living with Silas. I'm not sure how many, but apparently Merril met at least two girls in 895, who were like four or five years old. Anyway, that's not important. The important thing is that it wasn't until 902, during the trip with Demos, that he learned the truth about Girarg and Brahm, and Des'Caina's plans for all the rest of his wards.

"What truth was that?" asked Cabbit.

"That," said Jasp, "is something about which I have been sworn to secrecy. In fact, Merril himself swore in 902 never to reveal it to anyone, which is why he didn't tell Primus or anyone else about it, when talk of Des'Caina's secret project began circulating within LandOrder. In spite of the hard feelings that eventually developed between Merril and Silas, he has always honored that promise. He wanted to let Des'Caina decide for himself whether or not to let anyone know the truth. And when we met with him yesterday, Des'Caina revealed it to me, as well as giving Chief RD permission to inform capo Primus and First Sorreter Newline. If, and only if, Des'Caina ends up becoming our chief sorcerer in Woodstockade, will that truth be revealed to anyone else in LandOrder. But suffice to say, it is deeply disturbing... if also potentially pretty cool. Now, let me get back to the story."

"Okay, Chief."

As I was saying, it was in 902 that Merril learned this disturbing truth about the children. And after that, he was never quite sure if he wanted to continue his friendship with Silas. They did stay in touch, but didn't actually see each other again in person, until 909. Even their t-mail conversations ceased, soon after Silas was recruited by InterGang, in 904. But for whatever reason, Merril got back in touch with him in 909, and paid him a visit. He also wanted to see how the kids he'd met were doing. And during that visit, he met two foundlings who had been taken in in the years since he last saw Silas. They were both about ten years old, at the time of Merril's latest visit. One of them had been taken in in 905, and the other in 908. Apparently, both of these young girls had heard of Merril from the other children, and when they met him for themselves, they begged him to help them escape from Silas. Unlike the other foundlings, the two of them never saw Silas as a father, nor did they have any interest in being a part of the plans that he had for all the children, once they were old enough. Merril, of course, was torn. He'd come to Woodstockade to try to renew his friendship with Silas, and the fact that none of the children seemed to be suffering, nor to object to the plans they knew Silas had for them, made him rethink the misgivings he'd had since 902. He didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize his already tenuous relations with his old friend, but at the same time, he couldn't just ignore the pleas of those two children. So, he talked with Silas about letting him take them with him, but apparently Silas was unwilling to let them go. He did, however, promise that if they, or any other children he ever took in, refused to take part in his plans, they would not be forced to do so. This seemed to reassure Merril, somewhat. But shortly before he left, the girls came to him again, and again begged him to take them with him. He didn't have enough mana at the time to translocate both of them away with him, so he took one, and promised to return for the other. Unfortunately, Silas discovered his betrayal, and ensured that he would not be able to ever take the one he'd left behind.

As you can imagine, that put an end to their friendship, once and for all. And that was the reason there was such tension between them, when we met yesterday.

"Wow," said Cabbit. "It's a wonder he was willing to tell the capo and First Sorreter about his connection to Des'Caina, given all that."

"Indeed," said Jasp. "But I guess he's still hoping for a reconciliation. Maybe hoping the passage of time will have mitigated Des'Caina's resentment over his actions three years ago. Anyway, the two of them acted civilly to each other. Des'Caina seems to have at least accepted him as a representative of Primus, since he is interested in leaving InterGang, for a number of reasons."

Cabbit nodded. Then suddenly, her eyes widened a bit. "Wait. Are you saying Chief RD has a ward of his own? That girl he managed to rescue in 909?"

Jasp shook his head. "Apparently, he offered to take her in, but she preferred to become a street rat. So she's still living here somewhere in Tonad. RD said he's seen her a few times since bringing her here, and she's doing well... not a 'rat anymore, but he wouldn't say exactly how she ended up taking care of herself."

Cabbit took a drink, for the first time since the story began. "Not sure if you've gotten to the point in the story for which you poured this, but I felt the need for a bit, at this point."

"Yeah... when I said that, I had two things in mind. The first was... the thing I can't tell you about. I momentarily forgot about the secrecy thing, so I guess, on that count at least, the drink isn't quite as necessary as I suggested. But I haven't gotten to the other thing, yet."

"Well then, get back to the story!"

Okay, so... once I was caught up on their personal history, we got down to business. Of course, I was basically there as an observer; RD was the one who'd been assigned by Primus to negotiate the possibility of Des'Caina defecting to our side. To begin with, RD offered an official apology from capo Primus as well as don Des'Tambor (who of course couldn't meet with Des'Caina himself... it would be dangerous if anyone found out LandOrder's don in the village was meeting with an employee of InterGang, whereas most likely no one in Woodstockade would have any idea RD or I work for LandOrder). The thing was, back in 902, Demos visited Des'Tambor, who was already secretly working with Durell to expand his criminal organization, in the hopes of eventually joining a human gang. And of course, in 903, his gang ended up joining LandOrder. But that's getting ahead. As I was saying, in 902, after falsely accusing Merril of working with gangsters, and falsely accusing Des'Caina of the same, Demos told Des'Tambor that the Woodstockade police believed Des'Caina to be a gangster, even if they couldn't prove it, and therefore had no grounds to arrest him. But even if the police already knew Des'Tambor himself definitely was a gangster, he still wanted as few of his employees as possible to be known to the police. More importantly, the police wanted to ensure that Des'Tambor's gang never ended up allying with gangs from other villages, and since the police now believed Merril to be a representative of one of those gangs, Des'Tambor was wary of having anything to do with him. The closer the police suspected he was to joining an inter-village gang, the harder they'd come down on him.

"Wait," said Cabbit. "Des'Tambor wanted nothing to do with Merril? But... how did he even-"

"Sorry," Jasp interrupted, "I didn't say that quite right. What I meant was, even if the police were misled into believing either Merril or Des'Caina were gangsters, the one true thing Demos told the authorities was that the two of them were friends. So, if they believed Merril was in Woodstockade to recruit Des'Caina, And if they suspected Des'Caina of working with an outside gang, then Des'Tambor thought it would be best to avoid hiring him. Because association with Des'Caina would be seen as synonymous with association with whatever gang Merril supposedly worked for. That's why Listrin Des'Tambor never hired Des'Caina, for which Des'Caina, naturally, blames Demos. So not only did Des'Tambor and Primus have RD offer Des'Caina a formal apology yesterday for not hiring him in the first place, they also had him apologize for LandOrder's continued association, however clandestine, with Demos, over the years."

Of course, when Emannus Des'Rosset started his own gang in 904, and joined InterGang, he had no interest in hiring Des'Caina, partly for the same reasons Des'Tambor had refrained from hiring him for LandOrder, but also partly because of some bad family blood between Des'Rosset and Des'Caina. I don't know the whole story there, but it sounds like it goes back generations. Still, for some reason, capo Mysshroudedtery insisted Des'Rosset hire Des'Caina, for which Des'Caina has been grateful ever since. Nevertheless, Des'Rosset has consistently refused to make Des'Caina his chief sorcerer, and that bad blood I mentioned is a big part of why he's always been anxious to get out of InterGang. It's just that ever since Demos made him out to be a gangster two years earlier, he's had no chance for any kind of legitimate employment. Which makes Primus's offer to join LandOrder all the more appealing to him.

Anyway, Des'Caina seemed to accept the apology well enough. And RD proceeded to say, on behalf of capo Primus, that LandOrder was growing tired of Demos. Of course we'd never liked him, but he's proven useful to us, to some degree. Still, as much as we appreciate his current opposition to the Syndicate and such groups, Primus often wonders if it really matters... particularly in light of other potentially distracting matters, such as a possible rebellion. If that came to pass, we really wouldn't care who was on the throne, and would just as soon be done with Demos, once and for all. Which, by the way, I was just talking with my new friends about a few nights ago. On that occasion, I had also discussed with them the rumors that don Illuminatus was planning a coup against the capo of InterGang. When RD mentioned the Chaos, it reminded me of that conversation, which prompted me to say, “Besides which, Amelia Mysshroudedtery may not have time to worry about protecting your current position, considering events that are unfolding with don Illuminatus. If and when she makes her move, whatever it may be, that might just strike Des'Rosset as a good time to terminate your employment, which my associates tell me he's long wished to do, just as much as you've wished to leave his employ. If he takes such an opportunity to fire you... well, we're the only other game in town."

“Using scare tactics to recruit me? Sounds like some kind of racket. How like a gangster.”

“Not at all! I mean, I admit it sounds that way, but honestly, we're just trying to look out for your best interests. The truth may not be pretty, it may even be scary, but pointing it out needn't be seen as having some sinister ulterior agenda.”

Then RD said, “That's right. Our ulterior agenda is entirely benevolent, I assure you. In any event, the offer on the table is chief sorcerer of our Woodstockade branch. That's something you know damn well you're never going to get from Des'Rosset, whether he fires you or not.”

"You describe the 'offer' as being 'on the table,'" said Des'Caina, "and yet I cannot help but wonder if that is truly so. While I appreciate your coming here, old friend-" and by the way, those two words were decidedly sarcastic- "I will not trust that the offer is genuine, and definite, until I hear it from capo Primus himself. In person. And I daresay once you report the nature of my project, he'll develop some qualms he hadn't anticipated, when he sent you here."

RD sighed. "Oh, I daresay you're right about that... old friend." And when he said those two words, they sounded both sincere and wistful. "So, okay, let's not call it an 'offer,' per se. But if there's an offer, that is what it will be. Chief sorcerer, nothing less. And in spite of whatever moral qualms your project might inspire, it will surely be useful to us, if we choose to accept it." He grinned then, I suppose I'd say 'wryly,' which is a funny thing to actually say, isn't it? 'A wry grin'? Seriously, how often is that adjective actually spoken? I'm sure I read it often enough, in stories, but... I digress.

"Yeah ya do," said Cabbit with a grin of her own, which may or may not have been wry. "Just get on with it, would ya?"

So, he grinned wryly, and said, "No doubt you've had thoughts of eventually unleashing the products of your project on your unsuspecting employers. And just as undoubtedly, a great deal of damage would be dealt to them. And hey, I'm all for that, being as they're my enemies, too. In fact, I'd love to see it. But... surely InterGang is more powerful, their enforcers more numerous, than... than your own forces would be. And sooner or later, the tide would turn, and you would lose. I mean, unless you want to wait years and years to build up your forces in secret. Which could very well take until you're too old to enjoy victory. But, if you join us, you'd have LandOrder's enforcers backing up your... children...."

"They won't be children, when I enact my plan. Of that, I have always been adamant, despite what you might think. In fact, even now, a number of them are old enough. But I don't intend to use them until more of them are ready. That much is true."

"Sorry. Didn't mean to... suggest otherwise. I know you genuinely care about them, and they you. And you'd never do anything... that you believed was detrimental to them. But like I said, it couldn't hurt for them to have backup. Moreover, I'm sure our organization could help. You wouldn't have to conduct your project alone, in secret, as you do while working for InterGang."

Des'Caina pondered that for a few moments, then said, "Fine. You may tell your capo that whenever he's ready to make a concrete offer- as I said, personally- I'll be willing to seriously consider it. However, I'll want an assurance that LandOrder intends to cease any and all dealings with King Demos. And before you object that InterGang deals with him just as much as LandOrder does..." he smiled, I'd call it a vaguely devilish smile- hey, maybe I should be a writer!

"Don't quit your day job, Chief," interjected Cabbit.

...He smiled, and said, "Well, you'd be quite correct about that. Call me capricious, call me demanding, or what you will. You've given me some good reasons to prefer your gang over my current one, but still... However I may detest don Des'Rosset, there is my loyalty to Amelia, to consider. It would be unforgivably ungracious of me to switch allegiances without unrefusable incentive. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Indubitably," said RD. "I'll do all I can to convince capo Primus to make you an offer you can't refuse."

But in spite of that promise, RD also pointed out that it's most likely going to be dependent on whether the Chaos rebellion actually happens. Then too, it's also possible Demos will lose this year's election, which would make the point moot. Obviously if he's voted out of office, we'd have no reason to work with him, anyway. Either way, I expect it'll be awhile before any decisions are made about Des'Caina joining LandOrder or not.

"And while that's all very interesting," said Cabbit, "I'm still waiting to hear about the mysterious other person you mentioned meeting. So can you get to that, already? Listening to you is making me thirsty, but I'm waiting to finish my drink until you get to the part that demands it."

Jasp grinned. "You're getting thirsty? I'm the one doing all the talking, over here. Anyway, that's pretty much all I can tell you about the meeting with Des'Caina. We could have come home yesterday, actually, but the two of them decided to take the rest of the day to, you know, try to work things about, concerning the 909 matter. I wasn't privy to that, but I think it went alright. So while they were renewing their friendship, I was left to my own devices, to wander around Des'Caina's home. I gotta say, it was bigger than I would have expected, considering I've heard he has financial complaints. But, whatever. In spite of bad blood in his family, I think he has some inheritance. I mean, it's not a huge place or anything, but... I dunno, it kind of feels like an ancient castle, or something. The kind you read about in stories. Obviously, considering there were never castles on the Land, really. But it's got these long hallways, lots of doors, and not much in the way of lighting. You'd think a sorcerer would have magical lights, but no. Hardly any windows at all, and just torches set into the walls, here and there. To be honest, after I found out what his secret project is, it kind of makes sense he'd go for that kind of ambiance. Sorry if that further piques your curiosity, when I can't tell you anything specific about the project. But I'm about to make it up to you. Not to say I'm not sort of sworn to secrecy about this other part of the story, too, but... I swore it to someone it's not my job to woo. Someone who's trying to woo me, actually."

Cabbit frowned. "A woman?"

"What? No. I meant 'woo' figuratively, same as I did with Des'Caina. Or maybe it's just... a different definition of 'woo,' I'm not sure exactly..."

"Yeah, you could be a writer."

"Hey, you think writers don't use bloody dictionaries?"

"Sorry, just teasing, Boss. Go on."

"'Kay, I won't hold it against you. So... this guy, he comes up to me while I'm wandering around on my own. Apparently, he had some business of his own with Des'Caina, and it was sort of related to... the project, which he also knew about, but he didn't want anyone to know he knows. I mean, none of the other gangs. He made me swear not to tell RD I met him, nor Des'Caina. Or anyone. I really shouldn't be telling you... and I'm still going to have to gloss over certain things, I mean, the nature of Des'Caina's project, at least. But whatever. I'm telling you that he knows what it's about, and I'm telling you that he wants to hire me. Someday. Maybe. Or if not hire, exactly... at least possibly call on me someday for some kind of help. It's all kind of vague, but it also involves the Chaos. Oh, he definitely doesn't want me telling anyone in the Chaos about this, and I don't know if I will, or not. But I trust you not to tell anyone, either in LandOrder, or if you ever meet anyone in the Chaos, or... you know, anyone."

"I promise. You can trust me. Of course you can! And I'm very grateful that you're willing to tell me however much you can. So... who was it? What did he say?"

Jasp raised his glass, and began to grin a loopy grin as he brought it closer to his lips. "Dirk. Freaking. Noir." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he finished his drink, and set the glass back on the desk. "The Nineteenth."

Cabbit's eyes widened, and she gaped at her boss for about ten seconds before saying, "Shut. Up." and finishing her own drink.

Jasp sat smiling at Cabbit for about half a centhour to let what he'd just said fully sink in. He was still having trouble believing it, himself. He had met the don of the Black Profits, a gang more shrouded in mystery and rumor than even capo Amelia Mysshroudedtery of InterGang, herself. And he'd actually tried to recruit Jasp for his gang. When he could stand his own silence no longer, he resumed his story.

So... he comes up to me and, well, he doesn't immediately introduce himself, so I have no idea who he is, at first. He just says, "Hello. Silas mentioned he was expecting another secret guest today. Is that you?"

"Uh, not exactly. I'm more like a guest of his guest."

He arched an eyebrow and said, "Oh? How intriguing; Silas generally likes to associate with as few people as possible. I'm a bit surprised to hear he allowed a tag-along."

I shrugged at that, and said, "Well, I'm not entirely sure why he allowed it, myself. It could be that he just thought it best to have someone present to ensure things didn't get too... tense. I mean, there was no way there wasn't going to be some tension between his guest and himself, considering their history. Even though I just now learned about that history."

"Do tell."

"Actually, I probably shouldn't say anything. It's a private matter."

"Fair enough. I was just wondering if it had anything to do with... Silas's secret project."

"You know about that?" I asked.

He smiled, I'd say wanly. But I should probably look that word up. But never mind, I'm not a writer, we've established that. Anyway, he said, "Oh, yes. I've known about it for quite some time. But I probably shouldn't say anything, not knowing how much you know. I daresay there are plenty of rumors floating around, in certain circles, about the fact that a project exists, but to the best of my knowledge, no one's actually guessed the truth about the nature of the project."

"But you know what it is?"

"I do."

"So... what exactly is your interest in the matter," I asked. "Why would he let you know about it?"

"Ah... well, those are rather two separate questions; I mean, they may seem closely related, but actually, they are rather opposites."

That confused me, of course, so I asked what he meant by that.

He paused for a few seconds, studied my face, apparently considering whether he could trust me. Then he asked me what I thought of Des'Caina... and if I truly knew the nature of his project, what I thought of it.

Well, being a professional spy, there are, as you know very well, times that one finds it useful to lie, and times that it's best to tell the truth... or to use a mix of the two. In this case, my instincts told me the best way to get any valuable information out of him would be to tell the truth. So I said, "Well, I've just met the guy for the first time. I haven't really had time to form an opinion. But based on what I've learned of him thus far, my initial feelings are somewhat mixed. He seems intelligent, and probably more cordial than might be expected, considering some of the things he's had to deal with. Well, 'cordial' might be too strong a word, but at least... you know, not uncordial. I guess. He seems like someone I could, in theory, become friends with, but I'm not sure I'd want to. And that's because I find the nature of his project... unsettling. To say the least."

"Yes, black magic does tend to be unsettling. On that, we can surely agree."

"Black magic? What's that mean?"

"Oh, well, magic, but just... sort of evil." He shrugged. "It's a figure of speech. I didn't coin it."

"And when exactly did the color black start representing evil?"

"I believe it started, at least on the Land, with 'black market,' which is a familiar enough turn of phrase."

"Yeah, but that's not exactly evil. Not good, from a moral standpoint, but evil would be going a bit far. In fact, some of my best friends deal on the black market, and I certainly wouldn't call them evil."

“I suppose that's true. But 'black magic' and 'black market' are both Terran subphrases. And who knows how Terrans come up with anything? In fact, there are any number of Terran terms that use 'black' to indicate that a thing is... maybe not always evil, per se, but at least... questionable, or secretive, or, oh, shady, I suppose. Yes, and speaking of shade... that suggests the avoidance of light. Ergo, darkness; in fact, sometimes more than shade, but actually... things which are perhaps best done at night. And of course, the night sky is black. I suppose that could possibly explain the origins of such terminology, on Earth. As for here on the Land, I must accept some culpability for kicking off the trend, by introducing the term 'black market.' Not me personally, of course, but my people. We started it, or rather I should say my ancestors did.”

"Your ancestors? Who's this 'we'? I don't even know when the term was first used on the Land, but surely it was centuries ago...."

"Oh, how rude of me! I haven't even introduced myself." He extended a hand, and as I shook it, he said, "Dirk Noir XIX, of the Black Profits. See, there's that word 'black,' again. And I'd like to think we're not evil. Though there are surely those who would disagree. And you are?"

Well, I was stunned. Took me a few seconds to remember to let go of his hand. When I did, I said, "Uh... Jasp Underground, chief spy of LandOrder's Tonad branch. Pleased to meet you, Don."

He smiled amiably and said, "Pleased to meet you, Chief. I see by your use of my title that you're familiar with my name. But please, don't be so formal; call me Dirk. After all, it's not like you're one of my subordinates. Nor are you part of your gang's First Village branch, which means you personally aren't technically 'the competition,' so to speak."

"Uh... okay, Dirk. Then you may call me Jasp."

"Very well, Jasp. As I was saying... Silas uses black magic in his project, which you yourself referred to as 'unsettling.' I wonder if you might go so far as to call the project 'evil,' though?"

"Oh... hmmm. Well, yes, now that you mention it, I suppose I might. I mean, it does involve-"

"And I can't really tell you what I said next. It wasn't a precise revelation of the nature of the project, just an integral aspect of it. But still, I shouldn't just avoid revealing the precise nature of Des'Caina's project... I should... yeah, you know, not reveal any major aspect of it."

"That's okay, Chief."

"I should also mention that... well, basically, our conversation quickly became more specific, so we realized that we both knew the full truth about it. And that led to his revealing some things about his own group which... I'm going to give you the option of not hearing about. I'll just say, speculation about the Black Profits, if what he told me is true, turns out to be... more justified by reality than anyone outside that gang might suspect. There are two reasons you might not want to hear any specifics about that: one, knowing the truth might spoil the fun of the mystery, and two, such knowledge would necessarily preclude you from engaging in conversations about them with anyone else. You've already promised that you won't reveal anything I tell you, but maybe you hadn't considered that angle. Obviously you wouldn't go out and offer up your knowledge to anyone, apropos of nothing, but if you should find yourself in a situation where people are idly engaging in conversation about the Black Profits, just for fun, you'd be in a dangerous position at worst, and a disappointing one at best. I mean, what gangster doesn't enjoy speculating about them? No one believes most of the rumors, but belief isn't the point of such talk. Like I said, it's all in good fun. And if you knew the truth, you'd do well to excuse yourself as soon as anyone starts talking about all that. Which might strike someone as suspicious, if they'd always known you to enjoy such gossip as much as anyone else. Of course, I'm sure you'd be perfectly adroit at feigning ignorance, to make yourself appear to be in the same boat as everyone else. But I don't think you'd want to take the risk of someone suspecting you were doing that. And even if your subterfuge was utterly undetectable, I still feel like you'd be having less fun than if you didn't know the truth. It'd be too much like work. Especially for someone whose work actually is... that kind of thing."

"Wow," said Cabbit. "It took you a lot of words to explain that. I got what you were saying about a third of the way through that spiel."

"Just want you to be absolutely, one hundred percent clear on what knowing the truth will actually mean."

"I appreciate it. Very considerate of you. Now tell me everything!"

Okay, so, it turns out that the Black Profits have been involved with Des'Caina's project for some time. Maybe even from the very beginning, or soon after he started the project, around 885.

"That long ago, and we're just hearing about it now?"

"As Chief RD said, he's good at keeping secrets. And clearly, so are the Black Profits; perhaps they taught him some of his skill at that."

"Oh, and by what you've just said, you've already revealed that the speculation that the gang was around prior to the Coming is true. Though I still wonder how they would've known about the project way back then. Especially considering the elves were still in exile, and not even Durell or RD knew where they were, back then."

As I said, I'm not sure exactly when their association with Des'Caina began. Maybe it wasn't until after the Coming. All I know for sure is that they've been involved with him since at least 903, if not earlier. Dirk didn't exactly specify. But as for the gang existing before the Coming... 885 is the tip of the iceberg. I'm about to drop some news on you, and it's big. ...Okay, here it is: the rumor that the Black Profits, spelled with an 'f,' evolved from the Black Prophets, with a 'ph,' is completely true. If Dirk can be believed.

Cabbit's jaw dropped. After a few seconds, she said, "Gah?"

Jasp smiled. "I know, right?"

Anyway... he explained that... well, he didn't tell me everything, naturally, but he did say that somehow, the original Black Prophets came by a source of knowledge about future events, back in 399. Or rather, the people who founded the group came by this knowledge, and that's what led them to start the group in the first place. And it's at least partially responsible for inspiring other people to found their own similar groups, which started the whole Prophet Movement. And the original goal of that, was to inspire spirit-talkers to organize the Order, specifically to put a stop to the Prophet Movement. Though, naturally, the Black Prophets just allowed the Order to think they'd defeated them. Maybe the truly did eliminate all the other prophet groups, but the Black Prophets went underground. That was kind of a twofold victory for them, or maybe threefold. The main goal was the establishment of the Order, but it was also important to their plans that everyone think the Black Prophets no longer existed. And it didn't hurt that there were no more prophet groups, who might have provided competition to the BP, even if most, or possibly all of them, aside from the BP, were false prophets.

"Although," Cabbit pointed out, "it seems to me if the BP went underground, so could one or more of the other groups."

"Possibly. Though I don't think any of them were ever as well-organized as the BP had been. And if the BP had genuine means of knowing future events, while the other groups didn't, I'd think that would include knowledge that others had gone into hiding, so they could probably have eliminated them, themselves, if necessary. Although Dirk did say the Black Prophets' knowledge of the future was far from absolute, particularly since the future is constantly in flux, as a direct result of the things they do to try to alter it."

"Allow me to reiterate: Gah?"

And inspiring the establishment of the Order was just the first step in altering the future. You see, there was a great deal about their original vision of the future that was deeply troubling to them, so they thought they'd use their knowledge to make changes to the world in the present- or from our perspective, the past. Some of these changes would be huge, like the existence of the Order, but most would be far more subtle. And of course, particularly with the huge changes, there'd be no way for anyone to know that the Black Prophets were behind it all. I mean, if you'd told Malcolm or Archibald, when they started the Order, that they were doing exactly what the prophets wanted them to do, there's no way they would have believed you.

"But surely spirits would know, and would have told the spirit-talkers."

Jasp shook his head. "Ah, but that would have gone against the rules. God does not allow spirits to interfere in the development of the world- at least, not in any critical way. Sure, they can share certain bits of knowledge about other worlds, like Earth, which is how we know so much about the culture of planets with which we've had no contact; but they can't really tell us anything about our own world, at least not until we've discovered it for ourselves, as a people. I know sometimes the line gets a bit fuzzy, but there are some things, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, the telling of which would have too dramatic an impact on our world's development, and would constitute a sort of breach of free will. Besides which, it's not like spirits are omniscient. It's entirely possible they didn't even know what the Black Prophets were up to."

Anyway... the point is that the prophets have spent the last five centuries working to improve the future, in any number of ways. In fact, some of what they did was to lay the groundwork for Bishop Kizin- or someone in the Order, they didn't necessarily know who- to come up with his own idea for changing the world. Of course, without him having any idea he hadn't come up with the idea entirely on his own. There are any number of reasons the BP needed the world to be united, at this point in time, to set the stage for some of their other plans, which would be impossible otherwise. But even without those plans as a consideration, the union of the various villages was important in its own right, because some time down the line... bad things would have happened, which would make the Surreal incident of 436 seem like a walk in the park, by comparison. Dirk didn't specify the nature of those things, or when exactly they would have happened, but... he seemed almost frightened at the mere thought of it. And he was glad that part of the future had apparently been averted, but he also suggested that their work could be undone, and that future still might come to pass, if they didn't constantly work to prevent it. But they're always concerned about making the wrong move, so they're very cautious about anything they do. And at present, they're worried about the Chaos. It seems Darius's efforts will result in establishing a second country on the Land, which means the villages won't be completely united, after all. That doesn't necessarily mean some of the bad things the prophets foresaw will come about, but... they need to monitor the situation carefully. And since I now have a connection to the Chaos- which it's hardly surprising Dirk knew about, whether through a vision of the future, or more conventional espionage- he thought I might be able to help. At least provide them with some inside information, and maybe even present Darius and some of the others with certain suggestions, apparently my own, but which actually would have been passed on to me from the Black Prophets.

"But what's all that got to do with Des'Caina?"

"Nothing directly. That's mostly a separate matter. But his project is one of the many bad things they've foreseen. And so, they insinuated themselves into his project, in some way, offering support, but really they just want to be in a position to do whatever they can to minimize the negative impact of the project. Which is what Dirk meant when he told me my two questions were opposites. That is, the reason Des'Caina let him know about his project is the opposite of the reason Dirk was truly interested in it."

"Well, if they're so opposed to his project, couldn't they have just, like, killed him before he started it?"

"According to Dirk, there are... other forces at work. Forces which are, to some extent, using Des'Caina as a tool for their own ends. And if that tool was denied to them, they'd just find themselves another tool. And another, and another; as often as necessary. The prophets know this, and as I said, their knowledge is limited, particularly by any changes they themselves make. So they felt it would be best to allow the forces to use Des'Caina, of whom they were already aware, rather than force those... forces... to move on to someone else, who they might not become aware of, and therefore not be in a position to do anything about, before it was too late." But that wasn't the only reason for not taking such a drastic step. Dirk also pointed out that one of the reasons most of their actions are subtle is that if they drew too much attention to themselves, if people became aware of their continued existence, they'd be in danger. And if they were truly eliminated, there'd be no one left to help minimize the damage of so many things throughout history, and the future. Anyway, once he'd told me all he felt safe saying at present- and all he really had time to say- he concluded by telling me, "We have already begun taking steps to ensure that the country which the Chaos starts will develop in such a way that it not only won't upset our earlier plans, but also may become useful to us, in our future plans. And we have foreseen that you will be an important part of that country, whether you join us or not."

So I said, "I really don't see how I could be all that important. I'm no politician, I'm just a gangster. At this point I don't even know for sure if I'll ever see anyone in the Chaos again. I mean, I like them and all, but I didn't know them very long. There's no reason to think we'll become lifelong friends or anything. And besides, I really don't expect their association with LandOrder to last all that long. Especially if they do manage to start a new country, as you say. They'll want to go legit. That rather precludes hanging out with a known gangster, let alone inviting one into their government, or something. And really, even if I do think they liked me somewhat on a personal level, I was mostly just a liaison, to them. A connection to my gang, and a source of information."

Dirk grinned at me then, and I'm going to have to go back to the word 'wry' for this one. He said, "You really think you're going to stick with your current employers, for the rest of your life? A man with not only your talents, but your sensibilities?"

"What'd he mean by that?" asked Cabbit. "Are you thinking of quitting LandOrder?"

Jasp sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. "Not at the moment. But as I said earlier, I rather hope capo Primus will decide not to hire Des'Caina, after all. I'm not saying I'd necessarily quit if he did, but... I just don't know. Anyway, I also said that Des'Caina and the Chaos were mostly separate matters. Mostly. There may be a number of ways the two matters are at least indirectly linked, one of those ways potentially being that how I react, in the end, to the Des'Caina matter could affect my assumption that I won't be getting more deeply involved in the Chaos, at some point. And of course... Dirk does know the future, at least some of it. I suppose he'd know better than I, what my destiny holds."

"Assuming he's telling the truth about any of this. It's all pretty far-fetched, and all you have is his word. Hell, for all you know, he was even lying about being Dirk Noir."

"That's very true. But of course I was careful not to reveal more to him than I was reasonably sure he already knew about the nature of Des'Caina's project. I suppose there are any number of ways he could have known about it, much more plausible ways than what he told me. But I am fairly skilled at telling whether people are lying. No one's infallible at that, but I feel like he was telling the truth. And believe you me, I lay in bed last night thinking about everything I'd heard during the day, from RD, Des'Caina, and Dirk, as well as all I know about Darius's plans, and... any number of other things. You know, the other day I was explaining to the Chaos how various pieces of a certain puzzle fit together. And now it turns out, that puzzle was all just a part of an even larger puzzle. And the more I think about it... the more I try to imagine how all these pieces will come together, how they'll play out in the near future... the less far-fetched Dirk's story seems, to me."

"Still... I'd hate to see you go."

"Like I said, I'm not planning on it."

But my story was almost finished, when you and I got onto that topic. He asked if I really thought I'd work for LandOrder forever, and I said I didn't know, but even if I did leave some day, and by some unlikely turn of events I did become involved in a new country, I'd prefer not to betray any of my friends by spying on them for his gang.

He said, "Then don't think of it as spying; think of it as liaising, but with only one side being aware of it. Not necessarily as a matter of course, but as an occasional thing. And that, only potentially. We may never end up calling on your services; after all, I did say we've already been working on ways to deal with the Chaos matter, for the good of everyone, so your help may not even be required. I just thought, since I happened to meet you here, that I might take a chance on... establishing a connection with you, just in case it might come in handy, some day."

"Right," said Cabbit. "That's about the least believable thing he said. Which is saying a lot. Surely he knew you'd be there, and had been planning to meet you. Such an encounter being random would just be too much of a coincidence. Besides, I hardly think he'd decide on the spur of the moment to confide so much ridiculously top secret information with a total stranger."

Jasp smiled. "That's just what I told him. And he grinned and said he would have been disappointed in me if I'd believed him."

But he added, "Nevertheless, everything else I've said is true." Which, by the way, I'm sure is a lie. Not that he necessarily said anything that was straight-up false, but... I don't doubt for a second that he withheld some information intentionally, in order to mislead me, in some way. So, I smiled when he said that, in such a way that I'm sure, without any words, he knew what I was thinking. But anyway, he didn't skip a beat, but just continued with what he was saying. "If we ever do call on your services, you should of course feel free to say no. We wouldn't dream of pressuring you. But neither would we expect you to follow us blindly. If and when the time comes, more will be revealed to you, if you are willing to listen with an open mind. And any actions we may ask you to take will be explained to your satisfaction. This isn't the Army, and we do not issue orders, even to those in our permanent employ. On the contrary, we expect anyone and everyone who is involved with us in any way, to make fully informed decisions, and follow their conscience. That is, in fact, the very basis of our organization, the reason we exist. To ensure that a time never comes when that fundamental right is stripped from all but a select few. I'll tell you this much: my father, who was head of the organization before me, foresaw the need for the Second Order, but instigating its eventual creation was a risky move, indeed. While he saw no other way of preventing the eventual loss of individual freedoms, it was just as likely that the creation of a world government could have hastened that very state of affairs. The situation had to be handled delicately, and I daresay the fact that Demos became king was deeply troubling to many members of the organization- though there were those who saw his winning as being necessary, for a complicated reason I really don't have the time to go into. In any event, I believe I can trust you not to reveal any of the things I've told you, to anyone. Especially Silas or your present companion, or anyone in LandOrder. In fact, don't even tell them you met me. Nor, at least for the present, should you tell anyone in the Chaos. Until such time as we do ask for your help, it certainly wouldn't matter to them, anyway. But if you tell anyone at all, you would be placing my organization in great danger. And if you believe even a little of what I've told you, I believe you will not want to harm us, even if you choose not to help us."

And so I swore I wouldn't tell anyone. And we parted company. And that's the whole story. You know, except for the parts I left out.

"Wow," said Cabbit. "Well, thanks again for trusting me with this. And once again, I swear I won't tell anyone."

"Well, I hope you do better at keeping your promise than I've done," said Jasp with a grin.

"Oh, silly! If I was going to break my promise to tell anyone, it would be you. So that works out nicely. Now, mind if I pour myself another drink?"

"No more than half a glass. And pour me one, as well."

She did so, the clinked glasses, and began to drink.

Just as they did so, there was a knock at the door. Cabbit hurriedly put the bottle back in Jasp's desk drawer, though they made no move to hide their glasses. Jasp said, "Come in."

Don Breakhead entered and said, "Jasp, good to see you back." Glancing at Cabbit, sitting behind the desk, he added, "Atwater, hope you haven't staged a coup in his absence."

She grinned and replied, "No, don. He can have his chair back any time he wants it."

"Well, I guess you can keep it a little longer, anyway. Jasp, Primus wants a private meeting with you and RD, to report on your trip to Woodstockade. Be ready to translocate to Kimrin within the hour." With a grin, he added, "And don't let him smell that booze on your breath."

"No, sir," Jasp replied.

Breakhead left Jasp's office, closing the door behind him. "Well," said Jasp, turning back to Cabbit, "it was certainly convenient of him not to show up until I'd finished telling my story, wasn't it?"

Cabbit giggled. "Yup. Luckily, some coincidences are a bit more believable than others...."


chapter 39

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