15th Night of the First Spring Moon in the 1501st Year Of Underhaven
Grimthorn took a fist to his grizzled face without so much as blinking. He grabbed the next one to come his way and uppercut his own into Stonefist’s ribcage. With a grunt, he sent the younger male flying behind him, to land disgracefully on the practice mat.
“I hope for your bride’s sake you can poke harder’n you punch!” Grimthorn laughed. “Maybe then at least she can get some use outta’ ya!”
“He gets the job done,” Swiftknife quipped, coming in for her own attack. “Pity I’ll have to finish this one.” Her rabbit-punches had him stepping back a few paces. But he soon turned things around, spinning her around by the shoulder then kicking the back of her shin to trip her up before shoving her away.
Turning back to his other student, Grimthorn thumped his puffed-out chest with both hands. Stonefist sidestepped, playing for time while his mate moved around to flank.
Tunnelrat observed the exhibition – that’s what it really was, Grimthorn showing off how tough he was, how no one could ever knock him off his mountain – from a side-wall of the Sparring Hall. The crack about ‘poking’ was but the first drop of an oncoming storm. Coarse sexual humor was all Grimthorn could manage without flubbing the jokes.
The lunch period waning, she couldn’t linger long before heading on out of the place, a small carved lunchbox tucked under her arm. She didn’t eat at the Soldier’s Mess often. It was too humiliating, now that she had been demoted. Too many fellow soldiers looking down their noses at her, looking sideways while stifling a laugh, or not looking her way at all. Or, worst of all, trying to look as though they weren’t looking. She hadn’t anticipated such when she accepted the demotion that came with joining the Deputy Chief’s investigation as his spy.
So now she sacrificed a part of her lunch period nearly every day to seek un-affiliated places to dine. More public, yet in their own way more anonymous. Traveling up and down stairwells, across halls, under archways, and back again for the rest of her shift. Of course she had always made such trips, eaten at different places. The assistant administrator had a well-deserved reputation for finding things soldiers needed, and one didn’t find such things by only fraternizing with other soldiers. But the scales had tipped, for sure.
“This is what we can do when we work together,” she said to no one in particular, as she sat down upon one of the many benches. She placed the lunchbox beside herself of the bench. Tucked into a meal of boiled frog, nutmash, yeast rolls with honey, root tea. Got through most of it before the expected happened.
“This seat taken?” asked a voice she knew.
“It’s a public bench,” she said, keeping her eyes to the scene below. All those trolls skittering about down there. How many of those them were working at cross-purposes?
Flowstone sat down, the slight smell of flower-oil perfume giving him away even if his voice hadn’t. He placed the lunchbox beside hers, began munching away. They didn’t say much. If he was looking out on the Plaza himself, she expected he was looking to take ganders at fairer maidens than herself. Younger, un-attached, ones.
Tunnelrat took his box when she left. It was very similar in make to her own, by suggestion of their mutual ‘friend’. She did not confirm its contents until she was well on her way back to Tactics And Arms. What she had expected to be there, was. Two small sheets of glass, gilded in copper, bolted together at the corners. Pressed firmly in between, an old leaf, browned from age; one side of which was covered in tiny dark handprints. Bypassing the training grounds, she took another route back to Security to make the delivery.
The first thing she asked Ingot once she got there was, “Is this item really necessary? We have more than enough evidence to bring down Quartz’s little empire.”
The seated Deputy maintained a militarily rigid posture when he answered, “We’re not pursuing charges. Yet.”
“What?” The troll-maid’s attentive stance disintegrated into a frustrated arch. “I have done everything that has been asked of me. Endured the loss of so many of the things I had worked my way up to. For nothing?”
“No, not nothing.” Ingot held out a hand. “Hear me out. Please. We’ve worked together long and well enough for me to have earned that.” Tunnelrat's ingrained discipline allowed her to allow him that moment. He stood up, moved around the back of his chair. “Quartz is a facilitator, planting herself between those with something to sell and those looking to buy. We have some of her clientele, malcontents and the morbidly curious. But only from the low and middle ranks. We need to snag one of the high-tiers she’s skimming off of to make any charges stick. Otherwise, her clientele with the power to shield themselves will scurry away where we won’t ever get to them, and the Institute will throw every legal trick it can at us to keep one of its own clean.”
Much as she hated to admit it, Ingot had a point. Quartz’ employer, central as it was to all the Houses, boasted a crack team of Advocates. And a reputation for avoiding — or wriggling out of — any controversy. Tunnelrat nodded her acceptance of the facts. But disappointment remained etched into her lined face. She hoped she didn’t sound too tired when she added, “I apologize for speaking out of turn. But respectfully, it’s been years. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” She’d never felt so tired as when that last sentence left her mouth.
“You won’t have to find out,” the Deputy Chief replied. Sliding back a secret panel in the wall behind his chair, Ingot deposited the packet into a box labeled Item Sixteen. From the scroll-case next to the box, he procured a sealed tube. Which he handed to Tunnelrat. “Your reinstatement papers. Rank, position, housing, all of it. You know where to file them, I’m sure. I’ve arranged for a few overdue boons to be delivered your way, after its official. Courtesy of the Security department, as ‘recompense for the inconvenience'.” The scheme had always been for her to return to her former post as the Chief Of Security’s attaché. Once her unofficial rank once again became her official one.
Tunnelrat blinked, her fingers tingling where they touched the wooden tube that held her reclamation. She almost felt guilty for her outburst. Almost. “That easy, eh? I should have groused before.”
“I asked you to root out the black market, and you did. Admirably so. There's more to do, but I shall take on that task myself."
The gravity of that statement hit her like one of Grimthorn’s fists. “Wait, you’re… cutting me out? Giving me what I want to get me out of the way? After all I’ve done, I don't get to see the end of this?”
Ingot regarded his apparently former spy with compassionate eyes. "Don't think I’m trying to cut you out of credit for what you have done. Without you, this investigation would have never gone so far. When things come to trial, you'll have your moment in the witness box, and full recognition for what you've accomplished on behalf of House and home." He leaned his hand on the back of his chair, with a strained bearing, which made him somehow look older than he was. “There’s further to go before we all get there. And the risks…” He looked aside, clearly mulling over what he could and could not say. “I can tell you that I’m working a new angle. A hunch. A gamble, really. Dabbling in information above my rank, maybe even above the Chief’s. Just being known to have that information could put your status at real risk.” Seeing in her expression that that wasn’t answer enough, he elaborated. “I grew up in the ruin of such a fall. I can survive that life again, if things don’t go well. There’s time, for me, to climb back up out of it again. I don’t feel right asking you to live with that same risk.”
"Permission to speak freely?”
"I can't tell if you're being noble, or selfish, or foolish." When given leave to voice her mind, the administrator did try not to disappoint.
Ingot gave her a surprised grin, put out his palms as he retook his seat. "I'm being good to my word. I’ve stretched it far enough just sending you out for that leaf." Was that a hint on triumph in her superiors’ eyes?
“Your dedication to the letter of a pact is noted,” she responded, her voice back to military grade stoicism. “I’d like to note for the record that I don’t like leaving things half finished.”
“Noted. It will be finished. Thoroughly and irrevocably, however long it takes. You have my word on that too,” Tunnelrat had come to know her superior well enough to know he didn’t make such promises lightly. “In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to help yourself.”
Tunnelrat glanced at the weight in her hands, which seemed to have been getting heavier as the conversation went on. “I’ve been feeling lately like that’s all anyone in Underhaven does anymore.” Eyes forward, “Whatever this new lead is, are you sure I can’t help? Sounds like where ever you’re going you’ll need someone watching your back.”
She hadn’t realized how close she had come to placing the leaden case back on the table until Ingot reached out to lift her hands and their charge back up nearer her breast. “This is me watching yours. Dismissed.”
With no further objections, Tunnelrat bowed her head and departed. Down the short hallway to the Chief’s Office, the center of activity that had been her domain for centuries. Only to stop halfway there. Caught between two doors. Trundling the still-sealed scroll. With no idea what to do.