The Savior – Snippet 20


The Toll

Six years previously



Treville District

470 Post Tercium

There had been no report from Jeptha Marone in over a month. This was not good news, as far as Mahaut was concerned. It probably meant he had found out something and was following up on it.

Meanwhile, grain promises-to-buy were wildly shifting. The trend was falling for Lindron-bound mixed grain and rising for Bruneberg-bound wheat and Delta rice, but that changed almost daily when the runner came in with the previous day’s numbers from Garangipore. Mahaut didn’t need a special investigator to tell her what was happening.

The Guardians were at their war games in Lindron. Sixteen thousand men, a town’s worth, were on the move. Anyone who knew exactly where the Guardians would be could make a tidy sum off the information. This was because the grain promissory notes were guesses at what offers to buy in a certain location would be. Cascade-bound grain, meanwhile, was in freefall. Unusually good harvests — from the fields of Progar no less — had flooded the markets of Bruneberg with grain. A few years ago, Progar was a meat supplier. Its grain production was mainly confined to barley, and not much at that. Now it seemed they’d shifted over to more water-hungry wheat.

If it weren’t for the large carrying distance from Progar to Lindron, and the fact that all shipments would have to be landed and ported around three sets of cataracts, she might fear for House Jacobson prospects in Lindron itself.

Anyway, thank Zentrum for the Guardians and their war games.

Mahaut, Solon, and Benjamin were bent over a scroll comparing the Garangipore House offers with what they knew were in the Lilleheim silos when the messenger from Hestinga arrived.

He was carrying a reed basket on his back. It was held on by two dakleather straps over his shoulders. Mahaut recognized him as one of the warehousemen from town. He dealt in imports, mostly from up-River, and specialized in the cheaper, lesser quality pottery from Cascade.

The fine stuff, the expensive stuff, was made by the artisans in Lindron, of course. Yet Bruneberg had street after street of kilns many times larger than all of the one-man shops of Lindron combined. The Lindron porcelain was for Firsts and those who emulated them. The Bruneberg potteries, which were controlled by a House Dupree, House Ziman, and House Weatherby cartel, turned out cups, pots, and pitchers for everyone else.

The front clerk had brought the warehouseman back to the granary offices. He was a known and trusted merchant — and one who usually had a lot of good-natured bluster to his attitude, if Mahaut remembered rightly. Now something was wrong. Instead of confidently striding through the door, the man hung back. Benjamin look up, considered him.

“Come in, Master Knopf. Don’t stand there like a post. You know you’re welcome here.”

The warehouseman shuffled across the threshold.

“Why don’t you lay your burden down and sit? Have some wine. Daughter, can you pour him a cup?”

Mahaut moved toward the pitcher, but Knopf held up a hand. “No, please, Land-heiress. Not now.” He gulped. “I have something to…show you.”

“Well, what is it?” Solon said briskly. “We are a bit busy at the moment.”

“I’m very sorry to interrupt, but I thought…you would want…”

He took the basket from his shoulders and set it down in front of him. He unclasped the latch and, with a resigned sigh, opened it up.

“We received a shipment from Lindron yesterday.”

“Lindron? I thought you only dealt Bruneberg pots, Master Knopf.”

“Business has been good, so we’ve been branching out, me and the missus. She’s been after me for years to deal in the fine stuff. Thinks it’ll sell in Hestinga as well as anywhere. Well, we took the chance, and she was right, she was. We started off with those porcelain half-elb cookpots, and damn me to cold hell if they haven’t been going out as fast as we can get them in.”

“Interesting, but what does this have to do with House Jacobson?” said Benjamin. “You know I don’t care who a man trades with as long as he gives me a fair deal.”

“I know, I know, Pater Jacobson,” Knopf replied. He paused, as if to gather his wits. “Yesterday, Pater, we got in an order of more of them half-elb cookpots, about a thousand this time, and some plates in there, too.” He coughed, cleared his throat. “Anyway, in the middle of the cookpots, packed in there with the straw and such, the boys in the warehouse found something. Something in place of a pot, if you know what I mean –” Knopf pulled a canvas sack from the open basket. “This,” he said.

“What is that?” Solon asked. “A rotten Delta melon? Is it some kind of practical joke or something, Knopf?”

“I wish it were, Land-heir, sir. I wish it were. No, there was a scroll attached.” Knopf patted his tunic, pulled a small roll of papyrus from an inner pocket. “Here it is.”

Mahaut took it from him.

“Read it, Daughter,” Benjamin said. He was staring at the sack, and his eyes had grown cold. Mahaut unrolled the scroll.

On pain of your own life, deliver this to Pater Benjamin Jacobson, House Jacobson, Lilleheim. Say it is in payment for killing a son. Tell him that cold hell awaits him and his house.

“Open it,” said Benjamin.

“I…I don’t like to,” said Knopf. “It’s just…I don’t want to be the one…”

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Mahaut said. She took the bag from him. It was heavier than it looked. She put a hand under the bottom and pulled back the top —

And almost dropped the contents in shock.

It was a head. A human head. A man’s head.

The skin was desiccated. The hair was stringy and filled with a dandruff of flaking chips of dried blood.

She’d grasped the bottom with the neck stump to one side. Now she took it by the neck stump, so she could hold it upright.

The eyes were closed. The mouth was sewn shut.

Benjamin Jacobson let out a cry of anguish.

“What is it, Father?” Solon asked.

“My friend,” said Benjamin, moaning. “It’s my friend.”

“Who? Who is that, Father?”

“Abram.” Benjamin began to sob. “My friend. My old friend.”

It was Abram Karas. He had been the Jacobson House Factor in Lindron. Benjamin Jacobson’s best friend from childhood, and long-time chief of staff in Lilleheim until Solon had reached maturity.

After that, Karas had been given the important posting at Lindron, where the largest share of Jacobson grain was sold, where deals were made, and he was also the overseer of a large portfolio of House Jacobson loans to Lindron merchants and investments in Lindron real estate.

This was the severed head of Abram Karas.

It’s either retribution from House Eisenach, Mahaut’s shocked mind told her. Or someone willing to go to any length to provoke a Family war.

Her father-in-law recovered himself sufficiently to look Knopf in the eyes. “This is not your fault, Knopf, and we don’t hold it against you. Thank you for your troubles. See Dillard, and he will reimburse you for –”

Then a sob rose in Benjamin’s throat again. He shook his head, unable to speak. Knopf, taking the hint, bowed and exited, leaving the basket pack behind. Mahaut carefully covered the head again with the sack and set it down inside the basket.

Solon put a hand on his father’s shoulder. Benjamin stood silent, staring at the basket pack. His jaw was clenched so hard his face trembled.

“This will have to be done carefully. Thoroughly. And without mercy.”

“What, Father?” said Solon.

“He’s talking about revenge,” Mahaut said.

Benjamin Jacobson turned to her. “Yes,” he said, catching her eye. There was impersonal malice in her father-in-law’s face. The expression of a carnadon waiting on the banks for one false move from its prey. “I’m going to need you, Mahaut.”

“Me, Pater?”

“Yes. Will you help me do this?”

Mahaut nodded. “Of course I will.”

“Cold hell, Father, I’ll help, too!” Solon said. “Curse them. Curse them all.”

Benjamin held out an arm. “No. That would make you the next sure target. I cannot have that.”

“But Father –”

“I said no!” Benjamin lowered his hand. He was still gazing at Mahaut. “What do you say, daughter?”

Mahaut nodded. “Yes.”

“You owe this house nothing. If anything, we owe you.”

“That’s not the way I see it, Pater.”

Benjamin nodded. “Then it’s done.” He looked back down at the basket, suppressed another sob. “I have to go for a walk. A long walk. I won’t be back today. I won’t be –”

Benjamin could say no more. He strode past the basket pack and out the door.

Mahaut and Solon stood silently for a moment.

“Land and Law, I’m not meant for this,” Solon finally said. “I want to sell grain. I want to sell grain, then go home to Mary and the children in the evening. And that’s all.”

“I know, Solon.”

“What are we going to do?”

Mahaut knelt beside the basket pack, pulled it up, and put one strap over her shoulder.

“First, we’ll bury this,” she said. “Then you leave it to me.”