The streets of D’urnina were deserted as they typically were in the thick of the afternoon’s heat. This was one city Farryn would be happy to see receding in the distance in another day or two. It was a pretty enough place but too pretentious by half. One could get used to the tiled plazas and broad leafy boulevards, the fountains and frescoes. One could certainly get used to the yearlong sun and the salty tang of ocean air. It was the people of Kin’um that Farryn could not abide for long.
The Kin ‘umi were quite pleased with themselves, here in the capital most of all. Did they not understand that their gleaming, peaceful city of terraces and gardens and grand statuary ran, as all cities did, on the distasteful business conducted in its back alleys and slums? In any city Farryn had ever been to, and he’d been to many, it was in the dark places that the real engine of the city hummed. The well-coiffed, expensively robed citizens who traveled from the shops to the universities to the government halls and back to their grand villas were merely window dressing, unwitting financiers of the sordid underground dealings that really made things happen.
It was their collective air of superiority that grated on Farryn more than anything. Most Kin’umi would spout high ideals of fellowship and peace, enlightenment and tolerance, quoting this favored philosopher or that, all the while it was Farryn and rough men like him who handled the indelicate matters that kept their rarefied assess safe and unaware. Men who would never be welcome at a proper Kin’umi family’s dining table.
Farryn found the small spice shop he sought and entered under the awning, the chiming of the bell on the doorknob alerting the clerk to his arrival.
“Welcome,” the skittish little man hurried over to Farryn “If you have come for the brackis root, I have had a fresh shipment delivered just this morning-”
“Long is the day of reckoning,” Farryn interrupted, impatience flicking across his hawkish features. He hadn’t the time nor the inclination for idle pleasantries, he had business to conduct. Farryn felt a hint of satisfaction as the clerk straightened, his expression sobering as he gave the response: “Longer is the night of sorrows”.
Farryn smiled, not a handsome look on his sharp, hard face, as the clerk turned to lead the way through the narrow aisles of spices and herbs, dried plants and roots. The tumult of smells assaulted Farryn’s nose, musk and cloying sweetness thickening the close air. It reminded Farryn of Kin’um itself: sticky, heavy, oily, the too-obvious grandeur of its buildings and people forever trying camouflage the stench of humanity’s lesser nature. If his client hadn’t made the journey as worth his while as she did, Farryn would be content to leave the artificial charms of Kin’um to itself and never look back.
The clerk led him to a storeroom at the rear of the shop and then to a narrow door set in the back wall between shelves piled high with goods.
“In there,” the smaller man said, indicating the door and then scurrying away, as if to distance himself from the business at hand. Farryn pushed his way through the door and shut it behind him, waiting while his eyes adjusted to the dimness in the room.
“I was beginning to think you’d changed your mind,” a soft voice said from the shadows. She moved, as always, like liquid in long flowing movements, never hurried, rising from a chair and stepping forward at a measured pace.
“Bekh’ta,” Farryn said “you should know me well enough by now to know that I will keep coming back as long as the coin keeps coming forth.”
Bekh’ta laughed, a gentle sound that seemed out of place in this dingy room. She came closer still, laying a hand upon his forearm as though he were a pedigreed nobleman at a ball who had said something clever and she a refined lady obligated to acknowledge his wit. Bekh’ta was not beautiful, certainly not by Kin’umi standards, not even by the more forgiving standards of Farryn’s people. Her cool gray eyes, unusual among the brown eyed Kin’umi, garnered attention and her thin, plain features did not offend but Bekh’ta could have been any one of a million women, unseen and unnoticed, if not for the intelligence that sparked behind her reserved expression. She was of average height, not tall enough to be striking nor small enough to be considered delicate. Even the color of her hair, a muted brown, did little to attract or distract. It was this apparent plainness that made it possible for her to enact her plans without scrutiny. Farryn thought it fortunate that the ravages of time were no longer capable of altering her looks; she would not have made a pretty old woman. He was glad enough to be merely her vessel; getting fixed in the sight of those aloof, pale eyes would be a fatal mistake, he was certain.
“The money is not an issue for me or my associates,” Bekh’ta said, “What we do here is far more important than any material gain.”
Farryn imagined every lunatic in the history of the world had used the “greater good” rationale at one point or another. When he said nothing, she continued.
“Since you are a man of a more pragmatic nature let me assure you that the coin will continue to flow forth as long as you continue to produce the desired results.”
“In which case,” Farryn answered “you will be delighted to know that these last raids on the Ennai have pushed Enna and Sayulia to the brink of war. Sekol has sent messengers to his allies and has ordered all Ennai families to produce an able bodied man for service. Both nations should be kept busy for quite some time.”
“And that,” Bekh’ta said, producing a fat pouch from the folds of her unassuming dress, “is the reason your journey here is worthwhile.” She tossed him the pouch and he caught it easily, testing the weight in his hand. “Oh count it if you like, I can wait.”
“No need,” Farryn said, pocketing the pouch, “I trust your common sense enough. If you cheat me, I will not return and I suspect you do not wish to find another capable lackey at this late date.”
“Your faith in me astonishes,” Bekh’ta said drily.
“Faith is a luxury for the honest man,” Farryn replied and woman he added silently. He was under no illusions about his ultimate fate if he played this game too long. The trick was knowing when to get out before his usefulness to Bekh’ta expired but after he had gained maximum profit. He could not believe she intended to leave him alive after all was done.
“Have you any further instructions for me before I leave D’urnina?”
“Only this,” Bekh’ta said, leaning forward, pressing lightly against Farryn’s arm in what he supposed was meant to be an artifice of flirtation and might have worked, had she been able to summon even a hint of warmth in her eyes. He steeled himself not to recoil. “Our war, see that it begins. Be certain that this is not merely posturing and the beating of chests.”
“Your war you shall have,” Farryn said, slightly shifting his body away from her. He didn’t think she could leach the heat from his body but he couldn’t help himself. “I am merely an instrument.”
“We all tell ourselves what lies we must.” She moved away then, absently straightening her skirts as she did, as though they discussed the weather or the latest gossip. “Return three months from today to receive your next instructions and give me an update on the hostilities between Enna and Sayulia. The journey will be a profitable one.”
“Do you wish me to turn Enna’s allies against her? To leave her exposed and vulnerable?”
“Why ever would I want that?” Bekh’ta said, her eyebrows raised in surprise. It wasn’t often one took Bekh’ta off her guard and Farryn cursed inwardly. He couldn’t afford mistakes and letting his hatred of the Ennai cloud his better judgment would be a costly one if he didn’t consider his words before he spoke them. “Let them gather as many allies as they like. I should hate for a war we’ve spent months instigating to be over too soon. What is important is that Sayulia and Enna pay attention to one another and not to Kin’um.”
“I understand,” Farryn said and gave a curt nod “Until next time.” He turned to go, trying to slow his movements, loosen his spine, give nothing away.
“Farryn,” Bekh’ta called after him as his hand reached the door. She rarely used his name. It wasn’t a good sign. When she spoke again her voice had lost its lightness. “I hope, for your own sake, that you do understand.”
Farryn could not get out of that room, that shop, that city fast enough.