(For other "Stories about Trolls", see the listing.)
(Ed. Note: this story was updated on 8/26/13, to add back in a paragraph of description that had inadvertantly been left out of the original posting.)
Quartz lay her thick tray of bathing supplies at the mouth of the marble-lined bath pit, save for a silver goblet she kept in hand. With a casual dismissal of a wide, luxuriant, towel she was unclothed. She stepped down steep, circular stairs into steaming water, letting out a hiss as jade skin warmed by the pre-steam took in more heat. Heat generated by... however it was generated. Quartz had better and more interesting things to ponder. Exclusive rooms of the Great Southern Bath-House such as this one, reserved for those of high status, were places for making deals and cementing alliances. Leave the lesser details to the engineers.
She side-stepped to a wide sitting stone carved as part of the ring of stairs. Resting upon it brought the water's surface past her breasts. Though she was bereft of clothing, she was far from nude. She wore a good bit of jewelry, and this was just the kind she took with her as bathing accessories. It seemed only natural to Quartz that a high-ranking member of the House of Provisions should be able to express herself in a way that spoke of how well she could provide for others. She savored a drink of 250-year old dandelion wine. Quartz spared a moment to admire herself in the finery's reflection: her triple-tail hairdo kept in check with gold-wire bands that complimented her orange-blonde hair. Gleaming yellow eyes that shone like topaz against the silver. A smile worth its weight in earrings such as the ones dangling from her lobes, and the amethyst pendant perched atop her sternum.
On a different day, one in which she was here for official business or purely for her own pleasure, she would have had the drink handed to her by one of the bath-house's attendants. And as she removed each piece of jewelry to scrub the relevant finger or wrist or earlobe, she would let herself became lost in the ritual of retelling herself the circumstances of how she had acquired them. For each item had its own story, its own uniquely delicious way in which it had come in to her possession.
While her fellow students in the House of Provisions were chasing each other up imaginary rungs on the social ladder, Quartz took the time in her youth to secure tangible marks of progress. Trinkets and trivialities to most, Quartz saw the value in amassing treasure. A golden drop from a good hoard could open certain doors faster than a letter of recommendation and with less strings attached. Hence the personal value to each piece she wore. To the now very obviously prosperous Provisionist, acquisition was victory. Even if her fellows still couldn’t see that.
No such reminisces today, however. This day she had a different sort of company. She grabbed the other goblet and handed it to the troll who was already seated atop the next stone over.
Plain, pathetic, Tunnelrat. The thin lines around the Tactitian's eyes and grey streaks in her hair bespoke of someone who had best start considering the state of her inevitable retirement. The lines in her hands and fingers, not fully swollen away by the water, spoke of a life lived playing at war and digging through paperwork. Any lower a life and Tunnelrat's fingernails would no doubt be stained black from scrabbling through the dirt like her filthy namesake.
But for all the turnaround in Underhaven Security over the past centuries, Tunnelrat was still little more than an administrative assistant within its walls. Her star had fallen a peg in fact, recently. When the new Chief of Security was installed, he brought up his own cadre of allies with him into positions of power and status. The veteran soldier had been demoted to adjunct for the new boss' protégé, narrowing her own prospects.
Granted, Underhaven provided for all its citizens. Even those whose illusions of security had been wiped out by a fickle act of nepotism. But was living hand-to-mouth really living? Of course not! Fortunately for Quartz, the ageing warrior had found a way to supplement her future.
"Our mutual friend bids you good eve," Tunnelrat said softly.
Mutual friend indeed! Tunnelrat was a thief and they both knew it. A thief with access, to places such as this and to certain corners of Tactics and Arms. But let her have her cover story if she felt one necessary. "Speak up, dearie," Quartz invited. "I've made sure we won’t be overheard." No attendants scuttling around, for one. The little people were so easily distracted by brick-a-brack they could trade for the things they needed to survive another day.
"All the same, I prefer to say as little that can be... I prefer to leave some things unsaid." Tunnelrat reached back to her own tray, and picked at her own, carefully folded, towel. The Tactician pulled back a hidden seam, exposing a small bag, which she offered to Quartz.
The younger troll slipped the cord free and peeked inside. What she found was what she’d demanded; a handful of small-ear artifacts. A growing trade that Quartz was eager to corner; the dealing in their bobbles represented a significantly lower risk than the point-ear stuff, and small-ear clumsiness made it easier to maintain a stockpile. Always leaving things behind, they were, so the stories went. Off the top she could see an ebony arrowhead, a toss-stone, a few discs of pressed gold bearing alien designs, and a ring of electrum and amber that was too small for her fingers, but which was nevertheless unique in all.
“I’ll take it. All of it.” Quartz said with a hungry grin, clutching the bag tight. “And whatever’s in the bag you haven’t shown me yet.”
The soldier’s face blanched. Quartz was after all demanding a good share of her ill-gotten gains. “What could possibly be worth all that?”
“This!” Quartz reached behind herself, setting her goblet on the tray she had brought. Its weight revealed a hidden panel. She fished out her prize and waved it seductively before the thief’s eyes; a flat comb that was practically all handle and teeth, the handle shaped for a more slender hand than any troll’s. Untarnished, green where the light touched it just so. It was easily the most unique piece in Quartz’s personal collection, and she was happy to be rid of it for a bounty such as this. A far more easily trafficked bounty.
“Is that what I think it is?” Tunnelrat whispered, astonished.
“You’re rutting right it is!” she chuckled. “You won’t see its like out of any forge stoked by Trolls. Nor anyplace else, unless you know where to look and who to ask. Which as it just so happens, I do,” she bragged. It didn’t take Quartz long at all after saying that to acquire all that she wanted from the meeting. As a courtesy, she invited her guest to enjoy the rest of the time she had to sit and enjoy the bath. She kept one eye on that guest at all times, however.
Tunnelrat was a thief, after all.
With military economy of movement, Tunnelrat placed the comb on the desk of the Deptuty Security Chief, eliciting a whistle of amazement from the Deputy himself. "Is this what I think it is?"
"Point-ear steel. Part of a set, sir, if the documents you acquired from Special Projects are accurate. Unspeakably ancient." To the best of Tactics and Arms’ knowledge, there was no evidence that the point-ears that presently infested the overworld had any capacity to make steel at all. “In all likelihood, a relic of the Liberation War.”
"Impressive. I knew I knew you were the right one for this job." He appeared as pleased with his decision making as much as her progress. "Glad you took the 'demotion'."
Tunnelrat nodded in acknowledgement of the compliment. "Quartz is the highest I've gotten up the chain so far. I may be deeper in now than the mole from Special Projects has gotten. But I think the black market trade goes further still. I think the trade in point-ear steel represents a whole other level to the collection of illicit paraphernalia."
The blue-eyed male nodded, then slid a new pouch towards her. "Go ahead and spread some more of that around. I want my spy to look like she's enjoying the benefits of betrayal. And we’ll see what new doors they open for you. We’ll get it all back once the arrests are made, anyway."
Tunnelrat straightened respectfully, and thumped a fist to her heart in salute. "As you command, Deputy Ingot.”