The entirety of human existence revolves around a concept most find utterly revolting: mathematics. Abstract away the concept of barter, rename it money, and people will spend their entire lives seeking it. Stuff resources into a couple of variables, balance them across the equality sign and call it trade. If done poorly, you'll find yourself at war. Which in and of itself is merely an exercise in subtraction. Some will argue that sex is the basest of all desire. But isn't that performed purely for multiplication? Daj understood all this. It could not be said that anyone was more devoted to the algebraic arts than she. And yet she couldn't help but wish primordial man had never realized two sticks were indeed greater than one.
Daj scratched her pen across a cloth sheet, blotting out another failed calculation, and threw it onto the mountain of equation-stained pages that littered her desk. Despite running the numbers five times, the Metallurgy Union’s finances came out two-hundred-thousand vesos too low. Not an insurmountable sum but far outside her margin of error.
With a sigh, she tore herself away from the balance sheets. Her attention darted along the black veins of the room’s marbled walls. Escape proved impossible. Where she normally found patterns of airships, ticking timepieces, and her mother's disapproving snarl, she found only numbers. She desperately needed a break. Unfortunately, there was one more gatekeeper standing between her and the bliss of intoxication. Daj gathered up her notes and left to face her.
Methodical did not begin to describe Natl's office. Crystal shelves housed books organized not by volume or category but by size and color. Under the window, a fountain bubbled with the rhythm of a metronome. Even the air tasted controlled, like Natl pumped in enough fresh air to keep the room from tasting stale, but not enough to cause a longing for the outdoors.
"What are you still doing here Daj?" Natl asked. "The waxing tide ended half an hour ago."
Daj often wondered if the entire city conspired to make her think Natl was her sister. It seemed unlikely, but then again, she hadn’t been alive to witness the birth. The more likely scenario was that while in the womb Natl had hoarded all their parent’s desirable characteristics. At the very least she stole the entirety of their father’s charm and their mother’s ambition. The combination created a creature seemingly destined to one day run the country. Daj on the other hand… by the time she arrived there wasn’t much left over. Her mother’s appetite and her father’s work ethic were the best she could manage. Not that she minded. A life of sloth and gluttony proved far more entertaining than ruthless politicking behind closed doors.
"It's the damn balance sheets again," Daj answered, sitting down.
Natl took the papers from Daj and thumbed through them. "You're still working on this? Why is it taking so long?"
"It's the Metallurgy Union. They have a two-hundred-thousand veso deficit."
While Natl deciphered the calculations Daj pulled a glass ball out of her pocket and formed a conduit. Warmth flowed through her, like a blush spreading across her entire body. She channeled the energy into the ball and sent it into an orbit around her head.
"That's not very much. They probably invested the goods into one of their subsidiaries. Did you go through the union’s promissory notes?"
“No. I forgot to include eighty percent of the unions assets in their audit.” Daj rolled her eyes and pulled another ball from her pocket. She sent this one into another orbit a couple hand spans above the first. "I think one of the union leaders is embezzling the money."
"That's a bold claim," Natl said.
"I need access to the union's internal archives."
"You know I don't have the authority to do that."
"Mom does and she'll listen to you."
"No!" Natl slammed the papers onto her desk. "If she gives an auditor without cause access to the archives, the unions would sue before the next tide lets out. Mom wouldn't survive long enough to be reelected."
"I have cause," Daj said. The balls above her drifted slightly out of sync. She corrected her mental juggling forcing them back into a shaky orbit. "I've looked into every document I have access to. Someone in the Metallurgy Union is swindling the funds."
She sent a third ball into the air. This one threaded diagonally between the other two intersecting at opposite apexes.
"You don't have any proof of that."
"That's what I'm asking you for help with." The balls orbiting Daj shook. She exhaled and corrected their path.
"Just submit the report. I'll take care of this and you can get back to the spectacle you call a social life," Natl said, stacking the papers together. "Do you really have to practice juggling while talking to me?"
Push, push, push, pause, push, push, push, pause. Daj smiled as she matched the rhythm of her tosses with the beat of the fountain. A fourth ball shook in her hand waiting to take flight. She sucked in a breath and set it in motion. It spun through the other three forming the final piece in an hour glass pattern.
"I have to find time to practice when I can," Daj answered. Annoying you is just a bonus, she mentally added. "I can't hand you the report. It'll get filed away as an anomaly and nothing will be done to stop this from happening in the future."
"Why do you even care?"
"What do you mean why do I care?" A moment of hesitation nearly caused the hourglass to topple onto Daj's head. She recovered in time to keep them aloft. "It's our job to care. The entire purpose of our office is to look into these matters."
"No," Natl said, clasping her hands before her. "That may be the designation of our office but our job is to keep mom in power. Rooting out corruption is secondary to that. Especially when you're playing for a pittance."
"It's good to know my sister has so thoroughly accepted the family legacy. You'll make a fine magistrate someday. You've already become a spider."
Daj pushed one of the balls a touch too forcefully. Before she could correct its course it collided with another. Glass shattered sending tiny shards spinning through the room. The two remaining balls careened away from. She mentally lashed out catching one before it smashed into the floor. The other drifted out of her reach. It arched toward the bookcase. Natl leapt forward smashing onto her desk. Inches before colliding it shot the opposite direction into Natl’s hand.
“Damn it Daj I just told you not to do that.” Natl said pushing herself off the desk. “You could have destroyed something. Do you ever think about anyone but yourself?”
“Do I think about others?” Daj slammed her hands onto Natl’s desk. “You’re the one who doesn’t care. Your veins are about to rupture because I almost broke one of your precious decorations. But I guess as long as it’s not your accounts the union leaders pilfer it’s not important.”
"Daj I," Natl started. She looked away her face softening from granite to iron. "I can't jeopardize Mom's reputation over two-hundred-thousand vesos without substantial evidence. If you find something else, I'll talk to Mom for you. Okay?"
She let go of the glass ball in her hand and sent it floating toward Daj.
"Fine," Daj answered, sending the ball back into a dancer's crown formation. "I'll find your evidence."
"I look forward to it," Natl said.
Once out of her sister's office Daj collapsed against a wall. She closed her eyes and forced herself to slow her breathing. Minutes passed before her hands stopped shaking.
"You okay?" a crisp voice asked.
Daj turned her head to see Shanja standing a few feet away. As far as body guards went Shanja wasn't the worst. That's not to say she wasn't to a huge pain in the ass. But her pain was more like the dull ache after sitting too long not the searing agony of a branding. It helped that she wasn't terrible to gawk at either. She didn’t possess the rehearsed beauty of a socialite, but embodied the finely honed allure of a martial artist.
Daj pushed herself from the wall. "My sister has a way of getting to me."
"Not what I meant," Shanja said. "Your shift ended nearly an hour ago."
"Ugh, not you too," Daj said. She started walking away and Shanja followed a short distance behind. "There's more important things in life than counting vesos."
"Indeed," Shanja said.
Daj arched an eyebrow at Shanja.
"Like family and one's country," she continued.
"Yes those are great. But what about fun, friends, and love?" Daj asked.
Shanja opened the door and they stepped outside. The glare of angel light off the marble buildings forced Daj to squint. They stepped into the street and were instantly swallowed by the river of people.
"Love?" Shanja tilted her head at Daj. "I thought you were only interested in sex."
Blood rushed to Daj's face, pushing the temperature several degrees past unbearable.
"I want both. Is that okay with you?"
They walked together shepherded by the crowd. Pedestrians gave each other an acceptable berth. Not close enough to bump into another but not far enough apart to slow down traffic. Just close enough for sand, sweat, and perfume to mix in Daj’s nose.
“Where are we going?” Shanja asked, as they passed the turn to Daj’s home.
“The Blue Lion,” Daj answered. “I’m meeting a friend.”
“The club by the docs?”
“That’s the one.”
Shanja put a hand on Daj’s shoulder, forcing her to stop. “I don’t think your mother would approve.”
“Good,” Daj said, pushing past her. “For as much time as you spend around me, you really don’t know me very well.”
Shanja sighed but didn’t mention it again.
The further they walked toward the sea, the more ragged the buildings became. Gone were the polished marble of the government district. Here brick buildings were the norm. A net of sky-trams crossed the rooftops, trapping the city within. Above those, airships drifted across the pale blue sky. Others had told Daj the Teletian sky was but a bland forgery compared to the azure blue nearest the Angel Grave. That it lacked the passion of the orange and yellow gradients found across the sea. But it was the only sky Daj had ever known.
Stands filled with mountains of produce crowded along the street, forcing the travelers to file in closer together. Here an acceptable berth meant not standing on another’s toes, and even that was up for debate. Smoked fish and chilies masked all but the most pungent scents. Behind the stands merchants cast hooks of words into the crowd, desperate to catch enough to feed them for another cycle of the tides. Their loud voices and strange accents tangled together creating an indecipherable cacophony. Daj steered toward a vendor with an entire meadow's worth of flowers on display.
"High tides beautiful lady. A flower for your lovely hair?" a middle aged woman asked.
Daj smiled and examined the display. She picked up a bouquet of sandy brown flowers with thick upturned petals and buried her face in it. The fragrance wasn’t strong, but it allowed her a brief escape from the crowds.
"A lovely choice my dear. Do you have a date tonight?"
"Ah, I wish that were the case. But no, I'm meeting a friend." Daj spun in place thrusting the flowers toward Shanja. "What do you think? Too forward or just sweet enough?"
"I've never known you to be anything but backwards," Shanja said pushing the flowers out of her face.
Daj sighed leaning back toward the merchant. "How much for the bouquet?"
"Ten vesos. You'll not find fresher sand blossoms anywhere in Teletel."
Daj dropped the flowers. "Ten vesos? Even if you grew them on top of your cart and plucked them two minutes ago there's no way you can justify charging that much. I bought some last month for half the price."
"It's not my fault mistress. Can't hardly find a loaf of bread for less than I made last tide. Prices rise by the hour it seems."
"I know, I know. The Secretariat of Finance has been investigating the rising inflation. It's just one thing to hear about it and another to actually see the prices." Daj picked up a small cactus flower and sniffed it. "Tell ya what. I'll give you eleven vesos for the bouquet if you throw in something pretty to put in my friends hair."
"I’ve got a real nice orchid that’d suit her eyes nicely," the merchant said. She plucked a flower off of her table and offered it to Daj.
"Absolutely not," Shanja said.
Daj spun finger pointed forward. "Yes you will. We're going to a classy place to meet a friend I haven’t seen in nearly a year. I'll not have my bodyguard looking like she crawled out of a Yoshnar’s cave. Got it?" She accentuated the final two words with a sharp poke on Shanja's chest.
Stone cracked, forming the nearest approximation of a smile Daj had ever seen on Shanja's face. "The Blue Lion isn’t what I’d call classy."
Daj grinned and placed the flower into Shanja's hair. Lightning blue petals against a black sky.
"Ah, you look gorgeous. Doesn’t she?" Daj asked the merchant.
"Indeed," the merchant replied without a glance. She filed Daj's money away and returned to her fishing.
"It's just a dead plant," Shanja said, turning back onto the street.
"No. It's more than that." Daj followed her into the crowd, careful not to jostle the bouquet in her hands. "It's an investment."