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EP457: A Struggle Between Rivals Ends Surprisingly

by Oliver Buckram
read by Laura Hobbs

about the author…

Oliver Buckram, Ph.D., writes science fiction and fantasy. He lives in the Boston area where, under an assumed name, he teaches social science to undergraduates. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), among other places.  He urges you to keep watching the skies.

about the narrator…

Laura Hobbs works in infosec by day and is a random crafter by night. Twitter is her social media of choice, and she despises the word “cyber”. When asked nicely, she sometimes reads things for people on the internet. You can find her online at soapturtle.net

 

A Struggle Between Rivals Ends Surprisingly
by Oliver Buckram

While the harbormaster fidgeted at his desk, Treya checked her pipes. They were, of course, in perfect condition: the leather supple and the drones polished. She’d brought her double-chantered smallpipes today, in case the negotiations grew complex.

The harbormaster snapped shut his pocket watch. “That damned beetle is already ten minutes late.”

Treya walked to the window. On the street below, a fishmonger pushed his wheelbarrow through a group of green-skinned Cantharan peddlers while a Glanite hoverjar floated by. But there was no sign of the beetle. If he didn’t show up, Treya wouldn’t get paid.

She scrutinized the hoverjar as it wafted through an intersection. Inside its murky interior, there must be a Glanite. The squid-like creatures seldom visited Port Raskol. What was it doing here? Might it want to hire a translator?

At last Treya spotted the beetle’s top hat bobbing above the heads of other pedestrians. His fringed leather vest marked him as a servant of the beetle Baroness.

After a few moments, the beetle was ushered into the office. Treya and the harbormaster bowed and the beetle spread his stubby hindwings in greeting. After Treya piped a welcome, he responded with a cacophony of wails, whines, and groans from his spiracles.

She translated in a low voice. “He’s doing the Lamentation on Congestion…apologies for being late…greetings from the Baroness. He’s going off on a tangent. Could be an extended monologue. No…He’s back on track. We’re definitely doing the first scene of A Routine Mercantile Transaction. It’s a one-act, so this shouldn’t take long.”

When the beetle finished his lines, Treya glanced at the harbormaster.

“Ask him why the Baroness is behind on her docking fees,” he said. The Baroness owned a fleet of fishing vessels currently in the harbor.

Treya shook her head. “That will serve no purpose. At best, he’ll give us a discourse on unavoidable delays, and at worst, he’ll push us into a convoluted subplot. No, at this point in A Routine Mercantile Transaction, you need to state your demands.”

“I want those fees paid. Right now.”  

Treya put her lips to her mouthpiece and trilled the harbormaster’s demand in a circuitous oration on the changeability of fortune and the virtues of punctual payments.

The beetle patted his vest pockets with his midhands. His moans and screeches grew louder.

She raised an eyebrow. “He claims he was bringing payment from the Baroness, but now he can’t find it. Pickpockets, he says. Of course he’s lying. He’s attempting the Clever Servant Outwits Rich Foreigners subplot.”

“No one cheats me!” The harbormaster got to his feet.

“Relax. I’ll tell him that he must’ve dropped it when he came in. Just pretend to look around on the floor.”

Treya played a brief dirge of sympathy, weaving in a sarcastic countertone. The beetle spent another minute checking his pockets before dramatically producing the crumpled banknotes from inside his top hat. He declaimed the Panegyric on the Recovery of Lost Items and handed the money to the harbormaster.

The beetle departed in a flurry of squealing farewells and the harbormaster counted out Treya’s fee in silver. She left the office feeling prosperous, coins jingling in her coat pocket.

She stopped at the first bakery she saw. The ostrich potpie smelled delicious, but she couldn’t afford it–she was weeks behind on her rent. She settled for a handful of day-old rutabaga crumpets, which she devoured on the spot. That would hold her until tonight.

As Treya left the bakery, she spotted the Glanite hoverjar on the other side of the street. This time it wasn’t alone. After a yak cart rattled by with a pungent load of night soil, she saw that Neb was walking beside the hoverjar. She could tell from his smirk and the way he stroked his beard that he’d just been hired by the Glanite.

Damn. Since Neb’s arrival a year ago, he’d stolen half her clients. And now the bastard had scooped up a new one. As a translator, he lacked finesse. But as a negotiator, he was ruthlessly effective, using high-pressure tactics and inside information when haggling on behalf of his clients.

While Treya was deciding whether to confront him, a mastodon lumbered down the street, blocking her view. Under the red velvet canopy of the howdah, an Owl Sister preened her feathers and puffed on a cigar. By the time the mastodon had passed, Neb and the Glanite were gone.

Ah, well. Neb’s small victory wasn’t important, because tonight her fortunes were going to change. Her best client, Renfrew Oxton, had hired her to negotiate the purchase of herring from the Baroness. Once the deal was made, Treya would earn a huge commission.

She arrived at her rooming house to find the landlord sweeping the stoop. The remainder of her coins disappeared into his outstretched hand. She climbed up the stairs to her room and set to work preparing. First, she unpacked her triple-chantered greatpipes and wiped their bores with almond oil. Next, she arranged her hair in a close approximation of the current fashion. Last, she examined her best gown. It had a dark stain, perhaps red wine, on the powder-blue velvet of the bodice. That would need to be covered up somehow. She rummaged in her trunk, weighing the merits of wrinkled sashes and grubby ribbons before finding the perfect solution: a silk flower.

Years ago, Treya had almost thrown it out. Now she was glad she hadn’t. She’d worn the flower in her hair on the night she and Neb had broken up, in her final semester at the university. After passing their midterm exams–his in Invertebrate Managerial Accounting, hers in Interspecies Performing Arts–they’d gone to dinner to celebrate. What a fool she’d been back then, hopelessly in love with Neb, blind to his narcissism. Had he proposed to her that night, she would’ve accepted instantly.

Instead, he’d announced that his post-graduation plans didn’t include her, and her evening had ended in tears. In retrospect, it was a lucky break. She’d spent several gloriously Neb-free years making a good living in a new city with new faces. But her earnings had fallen sharply when he’d arrived in Port Raskol, hungry to establish himself, with no hesitation about competing for clients.

By dusk, when the lamplighter was making his rounds, she was dressed and ready. Oxton arrived in a style befitting his status as Port Raskol’s leading human merchant, in a carriage with a liveried coachman and four snow-white yaks. Although Beetle Palace was not far away, it wouldn’t do to arrive on foot.

As Treya climbed into the carriage, Oxton moved over to make room. He was a big man, smiling and smelling of cologne.

“Fine gloaming to you,” he said. “Tonight, you’ll make us both rich, what?”

“I’ll do my best, Mr. Oxton.” Treya had to raise her voice to be heard over the clatter of wheels on cobblestones.

“How I despise those beetles and their tiresome dramas. Still, they do a damn fine job catching herring, what?”

Once a season, the Baroness’s herring fleet sailed to rich fishing grounds in the Howling Seas. Tonight, Treya would negotiate a price so that Oxton could purchase the entire season’s catch in advance and control the supply of herring.

The carriage slowed to a halt. They’d arrived at Beetle Palace.

The majordomo led them to a waiting room. This particular room was meant for humans, with appropriate furniture and refreshments.

Treya set her greatpipes on a chair and helped herself to a plate of llama compote. She ate while admiring the slime painting on the wall. The different colored lines–red, green, blue–were interwoven in a shimmering, hypnotic pattern. Peering closely, she saw an individual snail, no larger than a pea, crawling across the surface. It must have been fed a diet of red algae, since it left a red slime trail.

The first time Treya had seen a slime painting, she’d been a student at the university. It was the night she’d met Neb, at a Theatre Department reception. He’d not yet grown his beard, but he was handsome nonetheless.

“What do you expect from the Baroness tonight?” asked Oxton. He reached for a pickled emu egg and accidentally knocked over the silver saltcellar.

“Oh, probably An Honorable Agreement Arrived at, Following a Frank Exchange of Views. In Act I, we make our bid, and she rejects it. As we walk out the door, she begs us to stay. In Act II, she bewails her poverty. In Act III, we magnanimously raise our bid, and the deal is struck amid great rejoicing. The whole thing should take about two hours.”

“Poor predictable insects.” Oxton threw a pinch of salt over his left shoulder.

The door opened and the majordomo appeared, beckoning with a foreleg. It was time to see the Baroness. Treya glanced regretfully at the untouched eel custard before shouldering her pipes.

The receiving hall blazed with the light of several chandeliers. In the center stood the Baroness, wings folded and black eyes glittering, orating to three smaller beetles.

Treya and Oxton bowed, but no one acknowledged them.

“What the devil is happening?” asked Oxton.

“Let me figure this out.” Treya drummed her fingers on her thigh. “This certainly isn’t An Honorable Agreement. I don’t recognize it.”

“She’s improvising?”

“Beetles don’t improvise structure,” said Treya. “There are exactly three thousand, six hundred, and two plots. No more, no less. She’s just doing an obscure one.”

“Clever. She’s trying to throw us off, what? She knows that I’ve been getting the better of her, ever since I hired you.”

Treya smiled. “That’s because before me, you used translators with no training in theatre.”

The Baroness delivered a soliloquy. The chorus of three smaller beetles apparently had no lines in this scene, as they merely clicked their mandibles in agreement.

Treya tried to remember the lesser works she’d studied in the university. Since she’d majored in Commercial Xenodrama, she hadn’t memorized all the theological pieces. Could this be A Son Slayed Unknowingly, by Command of Divinity?

“Got it,” she said. “A Struggle Between Rivals Ends Surprisingly. And she’s already in Act II.”

Oxton frowned. “Rivals? You mean me against the Baroness?”

“No, I think–”

“Sorry we’re late,” said a familiar voice behind them. She spun around to see Neb, resplendent in a tailcoat with brass buttons. His greatpipes were garish as always with red beading and mother-of-pearl ferrules. Beside him, the Glanite undulated in the brine of its jar.

“Treya, you’re looking lovelier than ever.” Neb smirked. “Fine gloaming to you, Mr. Oxton. Allow me to present my client.”

The Glanite pressed a single tentacle against the glass of its hoverjar and regarded them with enormous pale eyes.

Treya fingered her silk flower and gave an icy smile before leading Oxton to the other side of the room.

“The Baroness is trying to spark a bidding war,” she whispered. “A Struggle Between Rivals Ends Surprisingly. The rivals are you and the Glanite. The surprise might be the high price that results.”

“Damnation,” muttered Oxton. “She’s getting smarter. Still, I–”

Treya elbowed him as the Baroness at last turned to face her guests and stretched out her hindwings in welcome.

Before Treya could blow into her mouthpiece, the whine of Neb’s pipes filled the hall. He blundered through the preliminary courtesies with clumsy phrasings that made Treya wince. The Baroness stood motionless, eyes gleaming in the candlelight like polished obsidian.

Treya waited until Neb was done–she didn’t want anyone to think they were playing a duet–and skirled a sprightly greeting, concentrating more than usual on difficult trills and graceful overblows.

The Baroness responded with an ornate monologue on commerce, transitioning to specific contract terms for the sale of the herring fleet’s catch.

“The fleet departs tomorrow on the morning tide,” said Treya. “She wants half her payment now, and half when her ships arrive with the catch.” It would be six months before the fleet returned to Port Raskol from the Howling Seas, loaded with herring.

“Well, at least that’s what we expected,” said Oxton.

“She’s definitely trying to stoke a bidding war. She’s doing the Encomium on Untrammeled Competition.”

Oxton scowled. “What happens next?”

“We make a bid. They make a bid. We both raise our bids several times. Then the Baroness does something surprising. Like awarding the contract to the lowest bidder. Or cancelling the sale entirely.”

“Perhaps we could make a deal with the Glanite, what? Form a temporary consortium, with each buying half the herring. That reduces the risk.”

“I advise against it,” said Treya, keeping her voice level.

“I know you and Neb have a past, but–”

“He’s not trustworthy.”

“I’ll speak to him man-to-man,” said Oxton.

Treya clenched her fists as Oxton sidled over to Neb and engaged in whispered conversation. Meanwhile, the Baroness continued her encomium.

After a few minutes, Oxton returned. “He won’t do it. Cocky sort of fellow.”

When the time came to bid, Treya went first. She’d chosen an initial bid that was well below Oxton’s willingness to pay, so she could raise it later in dramatic fashion. She started with a profession of undying love for the Baroness, moved on to an enumeration of the reasons why Oxton had little interest in buying herring, and then gave a threnody on ruinous market conditions. At the end, she apologetically piped the offer.

Then it was Neb’s turn. He started with a traditional denial of interest in money, segued into a bland observation on the magnificence of the Baroness’s thorax, and concluded with an offhand statement of his bid.

It was three times the size of Treya’s offer. Even the Baroness did a double take before starting her response.

“That’s outrageous,” said Oxton. “No one could make a profit buying herring at that price.”

Treya visualized her commission receding into the distance, like a schooner heading out to sea. “We haven’t lost yet. They want a surprise ending? We’ll give them one. Tell me, have you ever considered marriage?”

Oxton stared at her.

“You need to propose to me. Right now. It won’t be a legal marriage, of course. And it doesn’t need to be, er, consummated.” As far as she knew, Oxton had never shown any interest in women. “It’s a shame we don’t have any dung. It’s the traditional engagement gift from a beetle groom.”

“What’s this got to do with herring?” asked Oxton.

“The Baroness will be obliged to give us a wedding gift. Something related to the plot threads already laid down. She could give us a fishing schooner, for example. She could give us a single herring as a symbolic gift. Most likely, she’ll sell us the catch at our original bid. That’s harmonious with the existing plot elements.”

“I don’t have to give you half of my wealth, do I?”

“Well, as my husband you must refrain from eating any larvae I produce. That’s about it.”

Oxton nodded, and she instructed him on the procedure. Fortunately, the groom had no lines during the scene.

When it was her turn to speak, Treya gave a lengthy account of her inability to attract a mate. She bewailed her undersized thorax and declared that since she’d never known love, her life was a failure. At this, she collapsed onto the tiled floor, being careful to fall without damaging her greatpipes.

Oxton began walking around her prone body. He needed to circle her three times clockwise and three times counterclockwise, the beetle betrothal ritual. He managed to complete only one circle before Neb put a hand on his shoulder.

“What the hell are you doing,” hissed Treya from the floor.

“A Loveless Marriage Prevented,” said Neb calmly. “Stand aside, Mr. Oxton. If the beetles think we’re fighting, we’ll end up in A Romantic Triangle Ends Tragically.”

Neb circled Treya, three times clockwise, three times counterclockwise, as the beetles looked on silently. When he was done, Treya stood up and glared at him. The Baroness began the Paean to Matrimony while the chorus clapped their various pairs of hands in simulated joy.

The bastard had derailed Treya’s plan. As the groom, Neb would get half of any gift from the Baroness.

Neb smiled and turned to face Oxton. “You mentioned something earlier about a consortium. I believe my client will now agree to combine forces.”

Treya explained to Oxton that the play was effectively over, and there were no more lines for them to speak. The rivals had struggled, and had indeed come to a surprising conclusion. The gift from the Baroness, whatever it was, would arrive in the morning.

“But what about the blasted herring?” asked Oxton.

“We’ll have to wait until morning. If her wedding gift doesn’t involve selling us the herring, we’ll come back tomorrow and bid again. We’ll find a way to win.”

After a brief discussion, Oxton and the Glanite agreed to evenly split the market value of any gift from the Baroness.

The wedding ceremony took about an hour, after which Oxton and the Glanite departed. The feast dragged on much longer, with numerous speeches. Treya and Neb were obliged to sit together, with nothing to do but drink claret while the beetles droned on. They finished their first bottle during the Baroness’s opening Soliloquy on Procreation.

Towards the end of their second bottle, Neb raised his glass. “I propose a toast. To the beetles. I earn my living exploiting them. And so do you.”

“I don’t exploit them.” Treya looked over at the Baroness, who was reciting the Catalog of Copulatory Postures. “I just help people understand their complex culture.”

“We’re the same, you and I.” Neb’s speech was slurred. “No difference.”

“I’m nothing like you. I’m not a greedy egotist.”

“Please. That’s no way to talk on our wedding night.” And with that, he fell asleep, sitting straight up in his chair.

Same old Neb. He never could hold his liquor.

Treya drank her way through an ensemble performance of the Ovipositor Oration before losing consciousness.

The next morning, Treya woke to the din of Neb’s snores. Woozy and still half-drunk, she vomited over the side of the bed before taking stock of her surroundings.

She didn’t recognize the bedroom’s wooden walls and small round windows, but she’d never spent the night at Beetle Palace before. She was relieved to find both she and Neb were fully dressed. Her greatpipes hung from a peg on the wall, next to his.

When she got out of bed, the cramped room seemed to sway. How much had she drunk last night? Only when she noticed the greatpipes swinging gently back and forth on their pegs did she realize that she wasn’t in the Palace.

She flung open the door and squinted at the bright sunlight.

“Shut off that light,” shouted Neb.

She walked out and found herself on the deck of a three-masted schooner. Above, white sails billowed. At the far end of the deck, a beetle stood at the wheel.

Neb staggered out, leaned over the railing, and threw up. “What the hell have you done?”

“Me? I thought it was you.” There was no land in sight. She glanced up at the sun. “Looks like we’re heading north.”

“This is outrageous. The Baroness can’t just dump me onto a random ship.”

“It’s a herring schooner,” said Treya. “On its way to the Howling Seas.”

Neb wiped the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. “She did this to get me out of the way. Because I’m such a good negotiator.”

Treya started to laugh. It was a harsh, high-pitched sound, not unlike the cries of the wheeling seagulls above.

“Our wedding gift from the Baroness,” she said. “A six month honeymoon cruise. To the Howling Seas and back. Just you and me.”

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