The Twenty-third Night of the First Summer Moon, in the 1999th Year of Underhaven
Forge was resting upon the double-chair, nursing a cup of spiced tea, when Deeproot finally came home. She dabbled about in the kitchen, making apologies over the clatter of utensils and bowls. Returning to her husband, Deeproot nestled into the chair against him, a platter of reheated leftovers in her lap. Feeling a lingering tension in her posture, he kissed the back of her head. “Want to talk about it?”
He’d barely gotten the words out when she started off. “Scholars is at it again. Or was, rather. Long time ago.” She let a slow breath out, to drive a sour look from planting itself on her face. Reminded herself to 'Start from the front'. “The night started out plain enough. I brought the night’s trap-kills down to Tallcrag for processing. And who do I find already there to offer his help moving things about? Ingot.”
“Who?” Forge had to ask. There were far too many trolls in Underhaven for the Tinker to be expected to know them all by name.
“That skinny fellow who half runs Security now.”
“Oh, right.” The blacksmith twisted one of this beard braids, trying to put a face to the name. “Might be the lad who looked into that scuffle in the metal shop a few years back. A good enough sort, head didn’t go flying off when he talked about keeping the peace. I take it he had something to discuss while he carried a load or two?”
“Nothing gets past you,” Deeproot grinned. “You would have been quite the investigator yourself, had you gone into Tactics. Anyway, yes, he did. Turns out he’s taken over investigating the under-table trade in elf-kit.”
Forge scoffed. “A puffed-up problem if ever there was one. That whole nonsense is nothing but an excuse to poke into other trolls’ business.”
Not wanting another round of that conversation, she moved quickly on. “Lad didn’t come right out and say it, though. Sort of talked around his target until Tallcrag went off to the salt-packer’s with the meat. Had me thinking for a mo’ that he was eyeing Tallcrag himself as some sort of sneakthief. Or more likely, that oily daughter of his.” Deeproot wriggled in her seat, as though just the thought of Quartz put a foul taste in her mouth. “A bad sort, her, if you ask me. Which he didn’t.”
“Do go on,” Forge asked, pinching some of mealworms out of Deeproot’s bowl.
Deeproot munched some of what was left of her meal before doing so. “Turns out he’s going all the way back to the Founder’s days, and tracking items down to get a handle on just how big the ‘problem’ is. He has this pile, well, he made it sound like a pile, of notes and indexes and such from as far back as The Founding. Was looking for a Chair’s help sorting out what ended up in the coffers of my House and when. When any given item might have gone off the books. A very thorough list of omissions. And not from the Archives, which is the funny thing. The cache came right out of that secret-hole Scholars runs.” She shook her head. “Can’t imagine how he got his hands on such a bounty without it getting up the pike to me.”
“I think I can help you there,” Forge mused, patting his wife’s shoulder. In his mind’s eye, the tangled lines of Underhaven politics were weaving into a pattern. Threads of which came courtesy of his gossipy younger brother. “Halberd sometimes eats in the same mess as Bladesong. Hmmm? Oh, she’s one of Grimthorn’s subordinates in Martial Training. She gets dumped with the administrative work Grimthorn says he’s too busy ‘doing important things’ to bother with, so she’s the one who comes calling with orders when the combat school’s armory needs new stock.” As grating as the egos of many in Tactics could be, he regarded the instructor highly. Like his brother, she didn’t strut about with an inflated sense of self-importance just because she wore the hammer sigil. “Not too long ago, she was passing Grimthorn’s office and caught ear of him facing down Blotter. Grimthorn did all the talking, all that she could hear anyway.”
Deeproot snorted, “Probably talking over Blotter like he does everyone else.”
Forge rolled his eyes. The Second Chair of Tactics and Arms had that trait in common with his father. “Grimthorn was pressing him to turn over some sort of documents, but Bladesong didn't stop to hear the whole thing. Grimthorn shouting is a common enough occurrence, I’d expect. Only stuck in her head because she’d never seen Blotter anywhere near the training grounds before. And given that he’s the elf-lorist…”
“Grimthorn must have been sticking his boot into the investigation where he doesn't belong,” Deeproot concluded. “Well, if you’ve ever spent a quarter bell around Blotter, you’d know that old hermit doesn't suffer fools gladly. And Grimthorn is the very definition of one. Our high and mighty Lorekeeper may well have tossed a bag of parchments in the grizzled toad’s face to teach him a lesson about asking for things nicely.”
“At which point Grimthorn decided he had better things to do than his own homework, and Ingot gets a disorganized mess dropped in his lap.” Forge’s summation seemed to fit the facts.
“Must have been a lovely night at Security when that came by. Bladesong’s the lad’s mum, you know. How did she take his workload being tripled by her boss?”
“I don't suppose she knows a cog about what’s going on. Halberd doesn't know anyone that Grimthorn keeps in his loop.”
“His ‘loop’ is all Lodestone’s cronies, if you take the words I hear around lunch tables for true.” She took the rough-skinned green hand that had been resting on her shoulder and kissed it. Then put the empty bowl into it, to place on the stand beside his half of the chair. “Thank you for putting that mystery to bed. On to the next one, which I’m happy to report I did solve. The lad showed me some of the work he’d done putting items to codenames. Some metal hairbrush. A tiny little ring that probably couldn't even fit over a she-mump’s earlobe. Some poor elf’s skull. Ooooohhh, really dangerous stuff there! Must keep it all close and safe! Bah!” Her words slowed as she got to the meat of her tale. “And then there was ‘Item Sixteen’. Just Item Sixteen, he had for it. No description of what it even was. Only turned up on an old, old, index. With some of the lines cut right out of the original scroll, he said. But I recognized the copy of Slipknot’s seal when I saw it. Right next to that fancy mushroom-and-loom sigil they used back then.”
“I can imagine how intrigued you must have been to hear about even more bits and pieces the public never gets to see.” Forge raised an eyebrow knowingly. “Or maybe a better word is angry?”
“You’d better believe it,” she snorted, “But I didn't let him know that! Soon as we parted, I marched right into First Chair Fen’s private study. Back of the House Leadership Chamber, where he keeps the things we don't give to the Archives.” A study she very much planned to have to herself someday. She paused, considering the many things she’d confided to her husband over the turns. “Have I told you about that place before? No? Oh dear! Ha!”
“Alas for me, I’ve heard too much! Here I am, House Leader, take me in!” Forge reached his hands out, ready for the wrist-binders.
Deeproot gave him a gentle shoulder to the rib. “The heads of your House have a similar place, I expect.”
“As do I.” Not that Forge was high up enough on the ladder to see it.
“So that’s where I’ve been. Took forever, but I worked out what Item Sixteen was. Is.” Deeproot said so quite firmly, convinced of her conclusion. “It’s that Preserver.”
Years before, upon acquiring the Second Chair among the House of Provisions’ leadership, Deeproot had a sit-down talk with someone the pair of them had only before known as a polite face at the Library. Thumbprint laid before the new leader a secret that had been stewing in Scholars’ back pocket since before that slippery House had a name. So startled had his wife been by the whole revelation — not only of the presence of a Preserver in Underhaven, but the sheer number of other secrets dropped in her own lap — she told him about it all that very dawn.
“Slipknot’s diary makes very clear that she’d offered a one-for-one trade; Trickleclaw for a Writhing Cylinder. There was one under her control at the time. The chap in charge of the bug at the time was all for that. Practically threw it at her, which got Slipknot thinking she could get away with offering less. So talks stalled, as she tried to come up with a smaller payoff - again, wanting the bug very very much - when suddenly the deal fell apart. No explanation why. Just a bunch of ranting about what a meddling upstart Tinderbox was, how the Scholars never should have been granted a House Charter to begin with.”
“Well, we’ve learned one thing,” Forge chimed in, remembering a time when his wife had recounted to him the hoops she had to jump through just to see that very Cylinder. “All these secrets you hate, it wasn't just our generation that started the rockfall.”
“No, it’s a slow rot that set in from the first days.” The trapper wriggled again, clearly not enjoying the taste of that at all. And still there was the third mystery of the day, the one left unsolved. “What’s stuck in my teeth is why?. Why did Slipknot want it so much?” She looked up at her husband, genuine puzzlement showing on her face. ”It’s not remotely worth a Writhing Cylinder. I should know, I’ve seen it up close. And other ones besides, with my field spyglass. Not worth the bother for my House to want to keep one, not for the little amount of silk they spit out. Too loud, too much babbling. And the singing! If you can call it that. I’m amazed that Thumbprint isn’t stone deaf. It’s just another curio that Scholars keeps to itself because they can. So, again, why?”
“Did you go and ask Ingot about it, then?” her husband asked. “Maybe he’s caught a useful story, at some other lunch table.”
“No. Of course I can’t just go and tell him what Item Sixteen is. I shouldn’t even be telling any of this to you!” She shot up from the chair, paced stiffly with her fingers curled into half-fists. “Ugghh! I hate all these secrets!”
A cold laugh escaped the blacksmith. “Seems to me Scholars is obsessed with them. Not that my House doesn't have some of their own.” He was sure his superiors did, in fact. Kept up above his head where he couldn't see them, like birthday presents stashed on a high shelf out of a mump’s reach. He’d sat through far too many of these discussions with his wife to believe otherwise. “Can’t really say if House Leadership would do any different with the wee beastie. Now if Tactics had it, we’d never hear the end of it. They’d be trotting it out on a leash every Founder’s Moon.” His arms free to move about he swept them in grand manner, mock pompery in his voice “‘Come and see the eternal proof of our victory over the Palace Keepers!’ they would bellow! Heh!”
Deeproot gladly accepted the laugh, and returned one of her own, but the moment was fleeting. Shoulders slumped, the mirth faded from her voice. “I took a Chair to help our people grow and prosper. Days like this I feel like the job is more about stifling them. I feel good and trapped. Like my foot’s in a rope that lets me move only so far before being pulling me back to the center. I can’t even tell someone in Tactics what they need to know to solve a riddle that Tactics wants solved! It’s ridiculous! Pointless!”
“And why can't you do something about it?” Forge asked, rising up to embrace her. Deeproot eyed him quizzically. “You’re a Second Chair. Just give him access.”
She blinked at him in shock at the sheer starkness of his suggestion. Her face reframed into an incredulous stare as she looked away. “You don’t know the mountain of scroll-seals Scholars has that thing buried under. I had to sign a writ-of-silence before I was even told about the complex where the creature is kept. And then I had to sign one before reading about it specifically. And another before I could go see it. It’s on my head if it gets out where Ingot got the name from.”
Something about the Preserver had raised the ardor and ire of an honorable founder of Deeproot’s House, and it was clear that she wanted to know what it was. Forge expected she could get no closer to that answer on her own. Not without assistance from a tireless investigator such as the one who had brought the matter to her attention in the first place.
With a finger, Forge drew his wife's face his way. Looking into her eyes, he saw the determination growing within them, and offered a suggestion as to how to reach her target. “So fight bureaucracy with bureaucracy. Make up something official sounding. Write the lad a provisional access pass, or whatever sounds good, and bury that under your own warrants using your authority as Second Chair.” His eyes took on a mischievous glint. “If you classify your declassification, you force anyone who asks about it to sign their own writ-of-silence! That way, you’d know who went asking, and they can’t go telling.”
Deeproot was silent for a moment. Reading her gorgeous grey eyes, her husband could see she was talking herself into it. Then back out. And into something more appealing. “No, that’s still too risky. Tell you what I will do! I’ll keep an eye on him, and his investigation. Quietly, mind. Find a way to nudge him in the right direction without putting my name on anything. This isn’t worth risking my chance at Fen’s seat over.” Beautiful ambition welled up in her eyes.
Forge treated her to another kiss, one full of passion and encouragement. “That’s my wily wife! Always weighing the risks and gains, and always coming out on top. That is why you’ve always been my favorite troll!”