Daj shoved open the ornate silver doors leading to her mother's office, unamused by the grandeur within. The offices of the Grand Magistrates had been created long ago to invoke a sense of smallness before the law, and this one was no exception. A deep black carpet woven of fine wool muffled footsteps, giving the room an almost divine silence, and book shelves towered between hendecagonal pillars.
At the far end of the hall, a three-story tall stained glass window cast the room in red and silver light. Within it, Ixcel, the first slayer of angels, stood encumbered in the flowing silver armor of the Seraph Knights. Geometric fire raged behind her, consuming the rest of the frame. A moment frozen in time mere minutes before Ixcel sacrificed herself to end the Eternal Winter and save humanity. A common motif in Teletian artistry: even those who strike against their protectors, setting in motion events that eventually culminate in mass extinction and the near collapse of civilization, are capable of redemption. Just become a martyr. Daj tended to avoid those passages of scripture.
Beneath the sanctimonious window, two men sat before a silver desk talking to Merajre, the Grand Magistrate of Finance.
“Get out,” Daj ordered, hands tightening around the stack of paper she carried. “I need to speak with my mother.”
The men stopped talking and glanced at her.
“Daj,” Merajre said slowly. The words didn't so much drip as gush with condescension. “This is no way for my daughter to behave. Wait outside and I'll speak with you when we adjourn.”
“No. You'll speak with me now.” Daj slammed the papers onto the desk, its cluttered surface shook.
Merajre maintained an expression of infinite patience, but her eyes bore murder.
“I do apologize, gentlemen, but it's apparent we'll have to reschedule,” she finally said, clasping her papery fingers together.
They stood and bowed in unison. “We'll send you a messenger on the next tide.”
As soon as the door swung shut behind them, Merajre picked a crystal decanter from her drawer and poured its amber liquid into a small crystal glass. She offered none to Daj.
“I hope this isn’t one of your childish games.” She took a slow sip from the glass, eyes locked onto Daj. “I haven't the time for your foolishness, daughter. Do you realize how close the proletariat are to rioting? To march in unannounced and demand my economic advisers leave in the middle of our planning session.” Her eyes narrowed into snake-like slits. “It’s unbecoming of you.”
“Games?” Daj nearly shouted. She caught herself and forced the energy from her voice. “I have an idea for a game, Mother. Let’s give the unions unfettered power over the city’s production and then turn a blind eye when they commit treason. Angels, how about instead of performing the tasks we were elected to do, we do the opposite and cover up for them. That way they don't even have to bother being sneaky like proper crooks. That'll curb the- what was the word?” Daj snapped her fingers together repeatedly while looking to the side. “Ah yes, the proletariat's unrest.”
Silence stretched seconds into hours.
Merajre set down her glass, the soft clink of crystal on glass shattered the everlasting silence. “What are you talking about?”
“This.” Daj knocked over the stack of papers. They toppled toward her mother, painting a jagged line of lightning across the desk's mirrored surface.
Golden spectacles lifted from the desk and floated toward Merajre. She plucked them from the air and primly set them upon her nose. Two pages atop the toppled stack rose to a comfortable reading height and hovered there.
Daj sent a dance orb circling her head and paced the room with the patience of a rabid coyote while her mother read.
A few minutes later Merajre set the pages down and piled them into a stack so tidy even Natl would have found it impressive. “I can’t follow this. Explain it to me.”
“Okay, look,” Daj said, walking around the desk to stand beside her mother. She pointed to a column on the sheet. “These are Nakaja's calculations. Let’s use corn as an example since it's the most egregious, but they're all like this. He uses 6,920 vesos as the price of a ton and states 3,847 tons were produced over the period. So all together the unions made around twenty-seven-million vesos off of corn which matches with their reported earnings. Following so far?”
Merajre gave Daj a look that often sent her crying to her room as a child; as an adult, it merely made her stomach heave. “Yes, I know how multiplication works.”
Daj dug through the stack until she found a chart detailing the year’s corn prices.
“Well, here's where it gets interesting. He took the most recent price of corn and used it as a static value for the entire three-month period. Which normally would be fine - perhaps a little lazy, but fine. However, right now, inflation is so high that the price increased by over twenty-two percent over the six hundred tides this accounts for.”
Daj flipped a page to its unmarked side and picked an antique dip pen from the inkwell on her mother’s desk. “Now the next part requires a bit of guess work, since the unions only report sales volumes to us in three month blocks, but luckily they track prices weekly. During the month of Mao, the average price was 5,449 vesos, Arao was 5,988, and Saolao was the value he used before, 6,920.” Her pen scratched across the paper, her anger draining into the dark numbers.
“It'd be easiest to divide sales volume into thirds and use that for each month, but with the subsidies creating more and more volume, I assumed an exponential growth, which is also entirely unrealistic but gives his model the best chance.
“So if we assume they sold ten percent of the volume in Mao, thirty in Arao, and sixty in Saolao, we only get around twenty-five-million vesos as a result. Leaving nearly two-million unaccounted for. And that's just corn! All the other crops are like that, too. Optimistically, thirty-million vesos are unaccounted for. Realistically, the value is probably closer to fifty-million.”
Daj underlined the number, tapped the pen into the ink well, and for good measure, underlined it thrice more. “Members within the Agriculture Union are trading with Malameho and Nakaja is covering it up. This document proves it.”
Merajre stared at the page, her finger pressed against her lips. “Why would the union members lie about their income like this? It'd only serve to increase their tax burden.”
Daj shrugged. “There's the obvious answers: they wanted to drive up stock prices and sell before the economy collapses, or the union leaders are so desperate to prove their subsidies are working, they're willing to take a loss in exchange for reelection.”
Merajre leaned her head against her middle and index fingers, mimicking to the exasperated look Daj had perfected in her youth. “Stop being difficult, Daj. I know you have more than baseless speculation or you wouldn't brandish around allegations of treason.”
“Don't use my own look against me, Mother. It's unbefitting of a magistrate,” Daj said, forcing her voice as deep and formal as she could manage.
In retaliation, the Grand Magistrate of Finance, a woman so proper the angels could take lessons from her, did the unthinkable. She stuck her tongue out like a child.
Daj dropped the antiquated pen, spattering ink across the desk.
“When did you develop a sense of humor?” Daj asked, rummaging through the desk drawer for a rag.
“Do you really think I could have lived all these years with you and your father without developing a childish sense of humor?” Merajre asked, pulling open the correct drawer. “If you'd forgive me and visit every once in awhile, maybe you'd see that.”
Daj’s smile faded, and she wiped up the ink in silence. Forgiveness? Forgiveness wouldn’t fix the nation's rotten core. Forgiveness couldn’t bring back the dead. What good was forgiveness to her?
“Misil is in town,” she finally said, careening the conversation into another direction, any other direction.
Merajre looked away and sighed, a heavy sounds filled with regret. “Tell her I’d like to see her before she leaves. I never tire of hearing news from across the sea.”
“She offered to take me with her when she leaves. To travel the world for a year.” Daj balled up the ink stained rag, then added “Maybe even pillage a town or two along the way.”
Merajre stared at the desk’s reflection of Daj, slowly clicking her fingernails against the glass surface.
“You do realize she's not actually a pirate right?”
Merajre turned and set her arm over Daj's shoulder.
“You'll be giving up any chance of becoming a magistrate if you abandon your position in the secretariat now.”
“I know,” Daj said. “But that's your dream for me, not mine. You still have Natl to carry your legacy.”
“My legacy isn't what's important here, Daj. Your future is.” The lines around Merajre's eyes suddenly seemed deeper than the ocean’s depths. “Two-thousand tides is a long time to spend at sea. Are you going?”
Daj twisted the rag between her hands, dripping ink back onto the glass.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Well, if you decide to leave, at least take your father with you,” Merajre said, with a faint smile. “I don't think he's had a proper vacation since I met him.”
“I don't think you've had a tide off since you were born,” Daj muttered. “You're not going to forbid me from going?”
Merajre laughed. “Daj, the last thing I'd do if I didn't want you to do something is forbid it. Honestly, a sojourn to Fera right now seems like a reasonable idea. All signs indicate the economy is about to collapse, and our gangs are positioning for an all-out war. I only wish you weren’t leaving for so long.”
“I think the two are related,” Daj said, searching through her notes for the research on the tobacco trade. “Have you noticed the price of tobacco collapsed?”
“Yes, within the last couple of months. It used to be a sign of a cultured citizen but now it’s so cheap, even the common man smokes it,” Merajre spat.
“Um, yeah, how dare they…” Daj said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, the price decrease and the increase in trafficking corresponds almost exactly with the Agriculture Union's new subsidies.” She pointed to a date on the page. “I think the union is smuggling the crop in from Malameho and using their infrastructure to disperse it throughout the country, and Nakaja is helping them launder the profits.”
“That's not a lot to go on,” Merajre said, her expression turning dark. All hints of compassion and humor faded from her demeanor as she once again resumed the role of Grand Magistrate.
“No it's not,” Daj admitted. “But it's enough to launch an investigation.”
“Perhaps.” Merajre took the paper and folded it in half. “Did you tell anyone else about this?”
“Only Natl,” Daj answered, walking to the front of the desk. She paused mid stride, “Oh, and I told Nalan that I’d look for anything suspicious. He was the one who turned me onto the tobacco trade.”
Merajre’s eyes narrowed and the myriad of trinkets on her desk rattled angrily. “Do not ever speak to Nalan about Secretariat affairs.”
Daj took a step back, stretching her arms upward. “Relax, we were just eating together, and it came up. And why not? He’s been a friend of our family for longer than I’ve been alive.”
“Nalan is idealistic and can’t think for himself. Comes with being a soldier, I think.” She leaned back into her chair and the desk stopped rumbling. “He’ll interfere and recklessly tear into this case, even if the fallout strips our family of power. No, this needs to be handled with care.”
“Power!? This is more important than losing your office, Mother. You should be ordering the arrest of Nakaja and launching a full investigation into Agriculture Union and the Secretariat of Finance before they can do more harm!” Daj yelled.
Merajre took her glasses off and gently set them onto the table before turning to Daj. “We can’t involve the law yet. While trading with Malameho is technically treason, no one really cares. At worst, Nakaja will be fired for neglect and the unions will be fined, but our opponents will seize the chance to tear us down. No, we must do this on our terms so it appears that we’re in control.”
“People care more than you realize, Mother. It’ll be another show of the rich spitting on the poor. Flaunting the law and growing richer while they’re the ones gunned down in the gangs’ crossfire.” Daj’s arms shook. Mother spent far too much time among the elite vying for power, it clouded her eyes to the real plights that plagued the city.
“Do you think Nakaja is the only one involved? If we arrest him, it only gives his associates time to dump the evidence and hide. We need to cut all the rot with a single strike.”
“You don't have to hunt for his associates. He'll give them up during interrogation.”
“This isn't one of your radio dramas, Daj. The world doesn’t work like that,” Merajre said, shaking her head. “Let me handle this. Nakaja and his associates will be dealt with on our terms.”
“Fine,” Daj hissed.
She turned away and left.