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Bargaining Power, Book 1 of Power Trips

Chapter 1: Fratricide

No king can maintain his power long without the consent of his people and the support of his lords. And by “lords,” I’m including—you know, just to take a random example—Gil Winter, Prefect of Avior, whose car had been circling the Carinan Security Service building for the past eighteen minutes.

 

“Would you look at that,” I said. “He’s parking.”

 

“At last,” my boss said, putting his pencil down atop the cipher he’d been unraveling. “Stay sharp, Mercedes. If you are gone more than twenty minutes—”

 

“I won’t be,” I promised.

 

“I will call,” he said steadily, almost ponderously, and I smiled. There wasn’t much even a high-ranking member of the Security Service could do against a prefect; but then, there wasn’t much Sr. Nordfeld couldn’t do, once he’d aimed his marvelous brain at the task. I let that comfort me as I passed through security and stepped out into the chilly autumnal smog.

 

On the sidewalk by the sleek sapphire-blue limo of Avior Prefecture, a man waited. He was massive: nearly two feet taller than I and three times as broad, with hands like shovels and a chin to match. His ivory-and-sapphire uniform and the stars decorating his collar labeled him head knight: Avior’s second-in-command, answerable to no one except his prefect.

 

“Miss Cartier?” he demanded.

 

It doesn’t do to mess with head knights any more than to mess with their prefects. Besides, I had an image to maintain. I clutched my handbag timidly and bowed, not making eye contact. “I am she.”

 

The head knight nodded politely and opened the limo door.

 

I rocked back as perfume and alcohol gusted out. Red leather seats glistened under dim LEDs, which fit exactly what I’d heard about Gil Winter. But the smells were old and stale, and no rave music thundered at me, and that didn’t fit in the least.

 

“Get in, please,” the head knight said, looming close behind me.

 

I bobbed another timid bow and in no way pointed out that this was Silvertip Prefecture, not Avior, and that he had no business ordering me around. Instead, I got in the limo like a good little personal assistant. And when the door shut behind me, it was no harder than necessary. And when the lock clicked, it was only because we’d begun moving.

 

“Miss Cartier,” said the man in the shadowy, lime-and-raspberry-lit depths of the limo. “Thank you for joining me.”

 

The voice was . . . almost familiar. Strange. I’d have thought I’d have known Lord Winter’s voice from television. I’d have thought, in person, that it would sound charming and confident.

 

Keeping my expression neutrally polite, I peered down the throat of the limo, trying to see past the distortion of the neon lights. But try though I might, I couldn’t make out my host’s face until he leaned for­ward. Then I inhaled sharply.

 

He was five-foot-seven, forty-six years old, and had the un­healthy, prematurely aged skin of a man who lived off mayonnaise and potato chips and didn’t believe in fresh air or sunshine. Unlike his brother, who had a certain rough charm, this was the sort of man most women instinctively avoided—unless, like this man’s wife, they were so desperate for elevation that they would sell themselves to the devil if he came knocking.

 

I dug my fingers into red leather. The temperature had jumped about twenty degrees. “I don’t un­derstand,” I said distantly. It was an automatic response, a placeholder while I struggled to wrench my rational mind back into place. “What is this? I thought Prefect Avior wanted to talk to me. Are you bringing me to him?”

 

My host watched with detached interest. Dim lights carved out the hollows around his eyes and stained his teeth. He had no reason to hurt me. No reason to think I knew anything. He said, “I am Prefect Avior.”

 

“What?” I shot back. “No you aren’t. I know what Gil Winter looks like—I used to live in Avior Prefecture. What’s really going on? Who are you?”

 

My host laughed, genuinely amused. “Gil,” he said, “was my brother. I’m Lord Lucio Winter, the new Prefect Avior.” He displayed his heavy signet ring, and I scooted close enough to see. He smelled of incense, sulfur, and body odor. And upon his finger, sure enough, was the engraved Avior bat.

 

Softly, I asked, “Gil Winter is—dead?”

 

“He was bound to die eventually,” said the new Prefect Avior. “It’s no secret that he drank like a storm drain. The wonder is that he didn’t totter off a balcony years ago.”

 

He spoke casually, as if his brother had meant no more to him than a drop of rain to the ocean. My eyes flew up to his, and behind his words I saw the glee of violence, the thirsty self-satisfaction of triumph. And in that moment, I knew as clearly as if he had confessed it in court that this man had killed his brother—and that my life de­pended on him not realizing that I knew it.

 

Sweat prickled my eyes like tears. I clutched my hands before my sternum. “You poor thing!” I cried, three parts nice and seven parts stupid. “You don’t have to be brave for me; I can see how deeply you’re hurting. I’m so, so sorry.”

 

“A thousand thanks,” he said, “but I didn’t actually drive a hundred miles to Silvertip to talk about my brother.”

 

“Of course!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think—I’m sorry.”

 

Avior cleared his throat. When he spoke again, he’d infused his tone with false jollity. “You’re not in trouble, Miss Cartier—I promise. I came because I wanted to talk to you.”

 

He’s putting me at my ease, I thought absurdly, and let the nervous giggle escape unchecked.

 

“I believe—correct me if I’m wrong—but I believe you went to university in my prefecture. You studied—what?”

 

“History, my lord.”

 

“Ah, yes! I remember now. I saw one of your papers on warfare. Hardly an appropriate topic for a girl!”

 

The title of my 80,000-word dissertation had been, “The Applica­bility of Ancient Tactics in Modern Warfare.” It had taken me two years of concerted research to write.

 

I shrugged and tittered again.

 

“How did you end up as a cryptanalyst’s personal assistant?” Av­ior asked. “If you didn’t want to marry straight out of school, you could always have become a teacher. Or were you planning to join the military?”

 

He was joking, but enlisting was exactly what I’d planned. I’d have done it, too, only I’d failed the vision requirement and didn’t have the cash for eye surgery. That’s why I’d gotten my current job: to save for it. I had put away enough money nine months ago, but some­how, I’d never gotten around to taking the next step.

 

 “Oh, no!” I exclaimed, channeling one of my brother Francis’s girlfriends—#14, I thought: the one who’d thrown up from watching us play Zombie SlashHouse III. “I could never join the military. Wait . . .” I placed one delicate hand to my lips. “Oh, that’s not why you came, is it? But, you see, it’s different on paper. You don’t have to see the—the—the blood and—and all the rest of it.”

 

He patted my hand kindly. “No, no. I only wanted to understand you—to understand what could have drawn you to your current posi­tion. I thought it might have to do with your employer. Jon Nordfeld sounds like quite an extraordinary man.”

 

“Oh, yes!” I cried, cycling to Francis’s Girlfriend #29, the enthusiastic one. “He’s brilliant, truly. Amazing. I’ve never met anyone like him.”

 

Avior nodded encouragingly. “I can see you’re a perspicacious young lady. Go on.”

 

I twirled my hair, deciding where to begin. “Well . . . he’s brilliant, like I said. You can’t be in the same room with him for ten seconds without seeing that. It’s in his eyes, you know? And . . .” I stole a quick, shy look at him. “And I’ve never had any problems with him. He’s never—never come on to me, if you know what I mean.”

 

“You’re a very pretty woman, Miss Cartier.”

 

His approval meant so much.

 

“He sounds,” Avior coaxed, “like the sort of man who likes to talk about himself.”

 

I shook my head in chagrin. “Hardly ever. He’s incredibly private. I’ve worked for him for three years, driven him to and from his apart­ment building every day—and I’ve never even seen inside the front door!”

 

This part was true, unfortunately. My boss had made it extremely clear from the start that we were to have no contact outside of work, and that I had no right to any of his personal information. I didn’t know how he spent his free time, although I suspected he read a great deal. Nor did I know if he had any family, whether he lived alone, or where he’d grown up. Flattering attentiveness could get him to ex­pound upon any other subject, but his personal life remained a void.

 

“Sometimes,” I sighed, as vapid as the hated Girlfriend #42, “I think I’ll never understand him. He’s too smart. It’s like he’s beyond normal people. But you don’t mind, do you?” I added earnestly. “You won’t be disappointed in him, I promise. He always delivers.”

 

The change might’ve been funny, if it weren’t so terrifying. In an instant, Avior went from friendly to draconic: tension stretching his torso taut and contorting his fingers into claws. His voice rattled harsh and low, and I shrank from him as he demanded, “What has he told you?”

 

“I—I thought—” I stumbled, fighting to keep my real alarm sepa­rate from the pretense. “I thought that’s why you wanted to talk to me! Because you want to hire him to—to break codes and ciphers for you and—I’m sorry! I won’t say a word. I promise. Please don’t be angry with me.”

 

Avior’s expression cleared as I spoke, and he resumed his avun­cular guise by patting my hand again. “Quite all right, Miss Cartier. I’m not angry. I should have known you’d guess. I said you were perspica­cious!”

 

I went weak at that, as much in real relief as in false, but he pinned me back down with a frown. “There is one other matter,” he said, and steadied his nerves with more patting. “It’s awkward and embarrass­ing, but during your time in Avior, you must have heard the slander my ene­mies spread about me. The nonsense about demonology.”

 

I had, as it happened. Frequently. One of my classmates had grown up in the neighborhood of Avior Manor, and had told us about the time her beloved dog had disappeared, along with every other pet in a half-mile radius. I also had it on good authority that Lucio’s obses­sion was the reason Gil had originally been the one chosen as prefect, although Lucio was the older brother.

 

There hadn’t been any recent scandals, so Lucio must have learned caution—but since my boss had contacted him by posing as an expert on a demonology forum, I suspected caution was the only thing he’d learned.

 

“It’s fine,” Avior assured me. “I’m used to it. Their lies have even proven somewhat useful, because I end up hearing about the crazies who really are interested in such superstitious nonsense. You’d be shocked at how respectable some of them seem, before you know the truth about them. I even heard that Jon Nordfeld—”

 

I snatched my hand back. “How dare you!”

 

“I didn’t finish.”

 

“You didn’t have to!” I cried, too enraged to respect the rules of rank. “And if you think for one moment that I will sit here and listen to you slander the most respectable, gracious, gentlemanly man on the planet, then you can think again!”

 

“He never mentioned—”

 

“Certainly not. And I’ll thank you to keep your nasty implications to yourself. For shame!”

 

Avior studied me, taking in the heaving chest, the brimming indig­nation and righteous offense, the way I didn’t shy from eye contact.

 

“My apologies,” he said at last, “but as prefect, I must ask these things.” He leaned back and tapped three times on the driver’s barri­cade.

 

I slashed my furious glare over to the seat opposite, squeezing my handbag hard as the limo slowed.

 

“I hope,” Prefect Avior said as the limo settled to a stop, “that you’ll keep this conversation privileged.”

 

“I know my duty!” I flashed at him and then relented from anger to mere stiffness. “I didn’t mean to offend you, my lord. I mean, I realize that you did need to ask.”

 

“I did,” he agreed, “and I thank you for taking a weight off my mind. Have a nice day, Miss Cartier.”

 

“You too, prefect. And . . . and I am sorry about your brother.”

 

The limo door opened, and golden-white light rushed its rhombus upon the seats. I scooted down and let the head knight hand me out of the neon-lit stale smoke and onto the sun-warmed sidewalk. After nodding politely, I walked directly back to the Carinan Security Service building, not look­ing around until I reached the door. Then I paused and watched the limo drive away, a glittering sapphire worm among black beetles. I wasn’t feeling wistful; I just wanted to make sure it really left.

 

It did, and I went in.

 

*

 

There is something wonderfully calming about the ritual of making tea, although I slopped boiling water onto the tray and rattled cups in their saucers. That’s adrenaline for you: terribly inconvenient when it’s not busy saving your life.

 

Anyway, a little hand-trembling didn’t matter, not now that Avior couldn’t see me. So I let the cups clatter as I carried the tray back to the office and set it on the desk.

 

My boss took one look at me and said, “Something is wrong.”

 

I’d eat glass before looking foolish in front of him. I sat on my hands so I didn’t jiggle, and I gave a full report. My memory’s not perfect, but I wouldn’t be forgetting that conversation for a long, long time.

 

“Did he suspect you?” my boss asked, when I was done.

 

“No.”

 

“You’re certain?”

 

“I’m certain.”

 

He relaxed back into his chair. “Good. Then we can proceed as planned.”

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©2020 by Deborah J. Natelson.