Ethereal Spring 5

Daj's feet screamed with every step up the finance building's worn marble stairs. Light from the Angels’ Grave burned into her eyes, and the rhythm of last tide’s dancing pounded within her head, a constant reminder that alcohol-induced fun doesn't come without a price. It wasn't the first time she'd been taught that lesson, and doubtful it’d be the last.

Shanja walked beside her, eyes carefully scanning the area. Hazy memories of the woman’s firm arms lifting Daj from the floor prevented her from meeting Shanja’s gaze. The folly of trying to out-drink a pirate captain was another lesson Daj would probably never internalize.

Daj took a final breath of brisk mountain air and stepped inside.

Aides scurried through a large yet cramped room, shuffling stacks of cloth paper from overburdened book shelves to the offices of administrative agents. Daj made her way through the catacomb of financial reports toward her office. Shanja disappeared without a word, her direct supervision unneeded within government buildings.

“Daj! I've been looking for you,” Natl yelled from down the hall as Daj opened her office door.

“Low tides, Natl,” Daj said in greeting, holding the door open.

The scent of chalk wafted from the room, a smell Natl detested. Surprisingly, her only sign of protest was a slight wrinkling of her nose before stepping inside. Daj pulled the door closed behind them.

The small office was made even smaller by the massive upright blackboards crammed inside. Organization had never been a priority, and the board stands had wheels built into them. The combination created an ever changing maze. The only other furniture was a singular desk and chair at the far end of the room, used to hold figures and equations deemed worthy enough to be transferred to paper.

Daj slid into the chair, leaving Natl no choice but to stand or risk staining her blouse with chalk, the same blouse she wore yestertide. Did she spend the entire tide here?

Natl covered her mouth with a clipboard and yawned. “I solved issue with the Metallurgy Union’s finances.”

“You found out who's swindling the money?”

Natl sighed, rubbing her eyes. “No one is swindling anything, Daj. I asked around and Nakaja said the Agriculture Union ordered eight hundred tons of the Metallurgy Union's excess coal. They haven't received payment yet.”

“Ixcel’s Flame!” Daj swore. “What does the Agriculture Union need with coal, and why not order it through the Mining Union?”

“How should I know? I'm not a horticulturist. I think they mix it into the soil or something. Anyway, it's not important,” Natl said, tapping a clipboard against her hip. “The union presidents worked out a deal that came out cheaper than the miner's prices. Ask Nakaja if you want the details.”

Did coal have any use outside of honoring Ixcel or for making steel? None of the Agriculture Union members possessed the equipment to produce coke and ceremonial fires didn’t use more than a few pounds of the rock.

Something seemed off, but thinking through it sent another round of pounding agony coursing through Daj’s head. Extending her inebriation was starting to seem like a good idea.

“Okay, Natl, I'll factor that into my report and submit it for review,” Daj said, wincing and covering her eyes.

Natl set her clipboard onto the desk. “I already did. Everything adds up, Daj. Can you drop this now?”

Columns of perfectly written numbers strolled down the page in neat columns. Red ink used for expenses, black for revenue, and blue for her notes and comments. The pure neatness of it sickened Daj. Something was deeply wrong with her sister.

“Yeah, okay, consider it dropped.” Daj set the board onto the table. “Get some sleep you look awful.”

Natl offered half a smile and nodded. “That’s a good idea.” She ambled toward the door, swaying with exhaustion.

Daj waited several minutes to make sure she was gone then called for an aide. Moments later, a diminutive boy peeked his head through the door.

“Bring me the Agriculture Union's most recent audit as prepared by Nakaja and copies of all referenced documents,” Daj said.

The aide nodded and left. Something gnawed at Daj, something dark and infectious. Too many irregularities haunted this year’s audits, and she'd be damned before she let it go.

By the time the aide returned, bearing the requisite documents, Daj’s head had returned to a manageable level of agony. He set the documents on her desk in three neat piles, each large enough to contain the entire history of Teletel. This is not going to be fun.

“Will you need anything else, Ma'am?”

“I'll call for you if I do,” Daj said, dismissing him with a wave.

The topmost five pieces of cloth contained a summary of the massive tomes before her, telling a tale of extreme prosperity. Corn and cotton sold at unprecedented volumes, bringing in a fortune, and demand continued to soar. Subsidies encouraged farmers to grow more, but demand far outpaced their output.

Daj pulled a blackboard toward her desk and erased it with her sleeve, sending chalky dust wafting into the air. Chalk scratched across the board, scrawling hasty numbers onto the dark slate. She lost herself in the numbers, attention focused solely on replicating Nakaja's work. The monster pounding within her head died screaming.

No mistakes could be found in Nakaja’s calculations; they were precise and added up to exactly the value the guild reported. But something still seemed off; in Daj’s experience, audits never went this well. Corporations lied, ledgers went overlooked, and auditors made mistakes. Mistakes like not adjusting prices for inflation, Daj realized, and turned back to her desk.

Deep within the documents, she found a table detailing the average price of various crops over time. On the twenty-second tide of every week, the unions sent delegates to a small sample of its largest members asking for sales prices and volumes. They then calculated the average earnings and levied taxes against all their members based on that value. It wasn't a particularly fair system, but it was efficient: punishing the undercutting of other members, and continuously keeping the biggest corporations in power. Teletian unions hated underdog stories.

A quick glance showed her that Nakaja had taken the most recent price values and used that in all of his equations. She estimated more realistic values and substituted them into the calculations. Half an hour later, she determined the actual value of corn came out ten percent lower than Nakaja’s result. Three hours later, she discovered similar discrepancies in most other crops. Even using the most optimistic values she could tolerate resulted in a number millions of vesos short of the union’s reported earnings.

One thing was clear, someone in the Agriculture Union was inflating their income for some reason and Nakaja was covering for them.

The cafeteria was mostly deserted by the time Daj arrived. Kitchen staff busied themselves throughout the large open space, cleaning tables and mopping the marble floor. Only two tables were still occupied by patrons. One by a group of three financial agents Daj didn’t recognize, and the other by the Grand Magistrate of War, who sat alone reading.

Daj grabbed a cold tajal, herring and chiles wrapped in a corn dough, from the counter and hurried to distract Nalan from his horribly boring book. She slid into the seat opposite him, eyeing the potted cacti sitting against the wall warily. That was a painful experience she didn’t want to repeat.

“High tides, Daj,” Nalan said without looking up from his book.

When someone hears the title Grand Magistrate of War, they build a very specific image in their mind of the man who wields it: numerous scars, bulging arms, and a greying mustache; the image of man who spent his entire life on the battlefield. An image Nalan embodied.

“High tides, Grand Magistrate,” she said, taking a bite. She grimaced. Cold tajals were the worst, the dough gets gritty and all the flavors dull. Worse yet, the chilies in this one had no bite to them. What a pitiful excuse of a meal. She’d have to talk to the chef about that.

Nalan glanced at Daj over his book then touched her plate with his index finger. Steam instantly began to waft from the plate.

“Thanks,” she said, attacking the plate with renewed vigor. “What are you doing in the Secretariat of Finance?”

“You’re not going to let me read are you?”

Daj shook her head energetically.

Nalan sighed and set his book down and pulled a long pipe from his coat pocket. “Mind if I smoke then?”

Members of polite society didn’t speak with a mouth full of dough and herring. Daj settled for a simple nod while pulling a pipe out of her purse.

“Young ladies shouldn’t smoke. It’s a dirty habit.”

Daj shrugged.

Nalan sighed but took the pipe from her. He filled it with a pinch of dark tobacco and stuck his finger into the chamber to light it. Once wisps of smoke started to rise from the pipe, he handed it back.

Daj swallowed her food and took it. “Thanks.”

Although technically illegal, most government office holders smoked tobacco. A certain laissez-faire approach to the rules came with the job. As long as one didn't get caught buying or selling the leaves directly from Malameho that is. That would get you locked up real quick. Teletel had been at war with Malameho for centuries and buying goods from the enemy… well that’s an act of treason.

“Mmmm, this is good. How much do I owe you?” Daj asked. The question was more a polite formality than anything else. Grand Magistrates and the daughters of such didn’t squabble over vesos, it wasn’t a trivial enough concern.

“Don’t worry about it,” Nalan said, waving his hand. Dark grey smoke trailed from his mouth as he stared past her, lost in thought. “Although there is one thing you might be able to help me with.”

“Sure, as long as it doesn’t involve joining the army.”

Nalan smiled. “You wouldn’t make it through basic training.” He took his pipe from his mouth and held it in front of him. “This is why I’m here.”

“To smoke with a pretty young lady?” Daj asked. “I hate to be rude but you’re a little too old for me. Actually, a lot old, grandfather old.”

“Tobacco is cheap right now,” he continued, ignoring Daj, a talent he perfected years ago. “Historically cheap.”

Misil had mentioned tobacco prices too. Daj hadn't noticed since she usually just pilfered Natl’s supply when running low.

“Demand doesn’t appear to have decreased so I assume there’s a been a large influx.”

Nalan nodded. “The gangs are getting bold. They’re constantly at war with each other and within the last month, we’ve seized seven warehouses filled with tobacco.”

“Why are you investigating gang wars and the black market?” Daj asked. She let go of her pipe and set it spinning around the table. “Shouldn’t that all fall under the Secretariat of Crime’s purview?”

“Because Cithali is a lazy imbecile and claims that since Malameho is involved, it’s an act of war. He unloaded the entire case onto us,” he said, gesturing to the book on the table. “This should all be classified but he sends it to me via the post.”

“What does that have to do with the Secretariat of Finance?” Daj interrupted, before Nalan went on another tirade about proper military protocol.

“The gangs aren’t organized enough to pull this off on their own. Tobacco sales have been increasing throughout the entire nation and no one can find their supply lines. I think they’re using the unions’ supply chains to move their product. Can you check if any business has seen a shipping increase?”

Daj’s breath caught in her throat.

“Can I see that book?”

Nalan raised a hand as if to protest then decided against it. “Go ahead. If Cithali doesn’t care about confidentiality, why should I?”

Daj flipped through the book until she found a graph detailing drug prices and estimated import rates. Within the last six hundred tides, drug trafficking had skyrocketed, and the price peaked just a few weeks before the establishment of corn and cotton subsidies.

Sweat built on Daj’s palms as she handed the book back. “I don’t have access to individual business’s ledgers but I’ll see if I can find anything.” Daj stood. “I have a meeting I need to prepare for.”

Nalan nodded. “Thank you, Daj. I need to leave as well.” He rose from the chair easily without any of the spectacle common among the elderly. “Send for me if you find anything.”

He walked down the hall toward the exit and Daj turned toward her office.

Someone within the Agriculture Union was trading with Malameho, and the Secretariat of Finance, the Secretariat established centuries ago specifically to fight against corruption and keep the unions honest, was covering it up. Daj was sure of it. Now she just had to prove it.