A Senserte Caper
By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
First-time visitors to Jonathan's wagon often described it as messy. This didn't do it justice. A room with unwashed dishes, empty bottles, and dirty laundry scattered everywhere was messy. A room pressed into service as storage for unused furniture, unwanted art, and incomplete sets of tableware was messy.
Jonathan's wagon wasn't messy. It was a wilderness, a trackless jungle no outsider had any business entering without extensive preparations or, even better, an expert guide.
Like a jungle, its flora of books, sketches, maps, and hastily scribbled notes sprang up wherever it could find purchase. Most held some potentially nourishing information, but some were poisonous. Useful reference books stood in teetering stacks with books filled with debunked myths or works of fiction disguised as truth. Blueprints abandoned as impractical or outright dangerous looked exactly the same to the untrained eye as useful ones. A page filled with complex calculations might have a single, trivial mathematical error that rendered it worthless, but there it sat near all the pages with no mistakes.
The fauna was even worse. Tools lounged on tables and chairs like predators awaiting a renewed appetite for the hunt. Mechanical devices ranging from tiny springwork masterpieces to large, counterweight-driven contraptions lurked under ever chair and behind every pile of dog-eared tomes. Nearly all of them were cannibal scavengers who lurked in the paper jungle, silently lusting for the flesh of their brethren even as they feared these rivals for gears and screws and mainsprings.
This jungle saw its share of death, too. Failed experiments and obsolete machines lay like corpses in all the unused corners of the wagon, slowly picked over for useful parts by other, more successful devices. This strange decomposition of contraptions happened slowly, and a casing or a winding key might lie in the wreckage for a month or more after the core idea had fled like the animating soul of living thing.
Some of these devices posed a serious hazard to the casual visitor who did not know to keep close track of his extremities. Not only was the rapid-fire crossbow wildly inaccurate, it sometimes threw a bolt up into the face of its operator. The perfectly innocent-looking lock on the table was meant to drive a (potentially poisoned) needle into the finger of any thief who tried to pick it, but at the moment it could shoot nearly a foot through the air without warning. The pulley of one experimental climbing harness sometimes popped a wheel, turning a smooth, easy climb into a sudden and potentially fatal descent.
When visiting this peculiar jungle, it was best not to touch the local wildlife. Even then, travel could be perilous. Sketches, maps, and wadded up notes covered everything, and no one could tell which rolling paper hills were simply piles and which concealed a lurking box of rusty nails or a herd of free range ball bearings. When Jonathan warned people to stay out of a particular section of the wagon because they might spring the concealed bear trap, only first-time visitors laughed. Everyone else stayed away from that spot.
Jonathan himself transformed into another creature when he was in the wagon — like a game warden raised in a city who has spent decades tending a particular tract of wilderness. Back home, he could discuss poetry and music, debate politics and theology, and enjoy all the other comforts of civilization a well-bred young man might indulge in. But in the wagon, he spoke only of tools, machines and mathematics, and any attempt to convince him to do otherwise was as futile as coaxing a kiss and a cuddle out of a lover while swimming in shark-infested waters.
No one knew this territory as well as Jonathan did. No one wanted to. No one needed to. If it could be found in his wagon, Jonathan could locate and retrieve it at a moment's notice. If it didn't exist he would set his jaw and disappear into the paper and brass wilderness for hours or even days at a time. When he returned to civilized company, he would have the requested prize in hand like the pelt of some rare and dangerous animal. Jonathan never boasted or complained about these expeditions because, as he would be the first to admit, he lived for those hunts.
As he read the letter Arrina had brought into his wagon, Jonathan looked hopeful that he could solve it with something in his wagon. The expression wasn't quite rage, but something more akin to the determination of an athlete who enjoys overcoming the challenges of the competition even more than achieving victory.
Arrina sat cross-legged on a chair her brother had cleared for her benefit. She already had the letter memorized:
King Larus of Pithdai,
As you can probably confirm by his handwriting in this letter, I have your heir in my custody. If you wish to see him, deliver all the paintings kept in Pithdai's throne room and art archive to Gulinora Island before the next time Chelestria is full. Late delivery will cost your son a finger each day. Attempt to apprehend or cheat me, and you will never see your son alive. Do not think I don't know which paintings you will not wish to deliver, and don't think I cannot tell an original from a forgery.
Send only one ship. Do not send Wen children or Farlander adults. Instruct your representative to come to shore unarmed and prepared to follow my agents' instructions without question or hesitation. Anything less could result in the end of your family line.
I sincerely hope you will arrange this transaction with a minimum of delay, difficulty, or spectacle.
Prince Kaspar of Pithdai
And the second page:
Come to Pithdai at once. You and Jonathan will be my agents in the enclosed matter. This is a state secret. Share it with no one.
Jonathan looked up from the letter and met her gaze. He dangled it in one hand as if threatening to feed it to all the other paper in his wagon. "This is a trap."
Arrina nodded. "It could be a forgery."
"We can't risk that."
"No," Arrina agreed. "We have to return to Pithdai more quickly than the wagons can get us there. Horses may not be fast enough, either."
"Father doesn't know where we are or how much his letter was delayed," Jonathan mused, and Arrina immediately saw the set of his jaw as he considered the problem. "We can't assume he'll send someone else if we don't get there soon enough."
"I don't want him to send someone else. He knew what he was doing sending us to do this. He knew we would come up with a plan and do something unexpected."
He raised an eyebrow at her, and his hands reflexively fidgeted with the hazardous lock. "Like tell all the Senserte that Pithdai's heir has been kidnapped?"
He paused, staring into the middle distance for a moment. "Do you have a plan for what to do when we get to Pithdai?"
"Not yet. Do you have a plan for how we're going to get there in, say, eight days?"
Jonathan's hand deftly evaded the needle as it shot out of the lock and disappeared into the paper underbrush on the floor. "The beginnings of one. Give me until the strike meeting tomorrow night."
"We're going to wait an entire day?"
He shook his head. "We won't make it on horseback. If my idea works, we can make the trip in maybe four days."
"Four hundred miles in four days?" Arrina asked incredulously.
"Less than one, if the winds favor us," he countered.
"Do you need any supplies from the other wagons?"
Jonathan surveyed the diverse wilderness around them. "Not tonight. Get some sleep. You have a show to put on in the morning. If I keep you up all night fetching canvas and candles, Michael will strangle me."
"He'd never get past the bear trap."
"That old thing? I dismantled it weeks ago and used the parts to make jaws for my wind-up panther." He carefully escorted her to the exit.
"Wind-up panther?" Arrina asked, glancing around the wagon to see if he was joking.
Jonathan grinned broadly, pressed the letter into her hands, and closed the door between them.
The mountain winds had picked up, and Arrina pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders in a vain effort to shut out the chill. She briefly considered returning to Michael's wagon but dismissed it. She wasn't really in the mood for cuddling or conversation tonight, and going to him in her current state would only frustrate him.
He would be glad for a chance to soothe me.
But her feet carried her back to her wagon. She didn't really want to burden him with her troubles. Kaspar's letter would make trouble for the Senserte soon enough. She'd give Michael a night of rest without having to worry about how they would continue operating without Jonathan and her.
When her wagon came into sight, what Arrina saw brought her up short. Michael sat on the steps outside, underneath the hanging lantern.
Guilt instantly flooded her. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I should have at least stopped by to say good night."
Michael didn't leap up and grab her in a crushing embrace at the sound of her voice, but he didn't have the storm cloud look he could wear when deeply provoked. He simply looked up from the book he was reading, his face a mask of compassion.
"It's understandable. Are you leaving for Pithdai?"
The frankness of the question surprised her. Arrina suddenly realized how little time she had spent with her brother. Michael couldn't have been waiting for her here unless he had come here soon after she had left his wagon.
He knew I wouldn't be coming back tonight.
"Yes," Arrina said.
Michael closed his book and stood up. "Tonight or at first light?"
She shook her head. "The morning after the strike meeting. Jonathan has some plan to get us there faster, but it will take time."
He looked grim, jaw set. "Will you tell the others?"
She walked up the stairs to her door. "We're not about to sneak off in the night without letting the rest of the Senserte know."
"Can you talk about it?"
Arrina paused with her hand on the door latch. "Yes."
"But you don't want to." There was no accusation there, just simple recognition.
Arrina considered this for a long moment. "I don't," she said, "but I should."
"If you want to wait until tomorrow, I'll understand. After you left, though, I couldn't help but wonder how anyone could have kidnapped the heir of Pithdai."
Arrina turned. "You think it's a forgery?"
"Not necessarily. It just sounds like a pretty impressive crime. Any chance it happened while your brother was traveling on business for your father?"
"You realize we have a play to perform in the morning, don't you?"
Michael shrugged. "We just freed Mattock from the shackles Reck had them wearing. I think they'll forgive a few missed lines."
"Missed lines?" Arrina demanded, almost offended. "You know very well it wouldn't come to that!"
It wasn't until Michael quirked a small smile that she realized he was joking. "Your move, Arrina. Invite me in, come back to my wagon, or tell me to go away. I forgot to bring that blanket with me, and this wind is brutal."
Arrina pushed the door open and waved him inside. She threw herself into the comfortable chair at her dressing table, while he sat on the nearby stool.
"Is there a chance Kaspar was traveling?" he repeated.
Arrina shook her head. "I doubt it. Father rarely lets Kaspar leave the palace."
That had always been a point of contention between father and son. Kaspar often spoke of joining the Senserte or just plain traveling around the Flecterran Union, though Arrina knew he was secretly fascinated with the idea of traveling far beyond the Valley. Larus refused to consider anything like that.
The king of Pithdai was very old even for a Wen. It had been a near miracle that he had even been able to sire Kaspar — so much so that rumors persisted that the king had entrusted the deed to someone else. He was extremely protective of his heir for that reason.
"And I'm guessing he has guards around him at all times."
"The very best — the homeguard." Arrina frowned. She did not envy whoever had been on duty when Kaspar vanished. Father would not be lenient with them, assuming they survived the kidnapping.
"And visitors have their lips sweetened before they are allowed to enter the palace."
"That's fairly standard throughout the Union."
Michael ticked off points on his fingers. "So that means someone got into the palace without having their lips sweetened, overpowered Kaspar's homeguardsmen, and spirited away Pithdai's heir?"
Arrina's frown deepened. "And they apparently evaded capture. Magic."
"Or agents inside the palace," Michael amended. He crossed his legs at the ankles, stretching. "Probably both. We should assume whoever it was operates the same way the Senserte does."
"Not all the spies need to have left after Kaspar's abduction. Father would want to make it clear that he wasn't making any moves against the kidnappers."
"Kidnappers. It could not be done alone," he muttered, nodding. "More and more like the Senserte, then." He closed his eyes.
Arrina watched his bushy eyebrows twitch as he thought it out. The Senserte called him "the Director," and not just because he filled that role for their plays. He had a gift for finding the logical arguments their marks might take, for asking the questions that led to the insight to do things that would tip the scales in the Senserte's favor. And he could do it all from behind the scenes.
"But why do it at all?" Before she could answer, Michael shook his head. "Clearly it's a powerful lever against your father, but what's the specific motive? Destabilizing Pithdai? Exacting political or economic concessions?"
"The kidnappers are demanding most of the paintings in Pithdai's palace, or they'll kill Kaspar."
Michael's brow wrinkled in confusion. "I'm sure they're all priceless national treasures, but why kidnap the crown prince to get them?" He shook his head again. "Do you remember that clean-and-replace swindle we ran against those poison dealers who were using hollowed-out sculptures to hide their product? I mean, if they could make the prince disappear, a few paintings should be easier."
Now Arrina shook her head. "It wouldn't work even for the Senserte. When the king isn't holding court, at least a dozen homeguardsmen stand watch over the throne room. The paintings there are never taken off the walls, and only adult Wen with sweetened lips are allowed to clean them. It's the same with the palace art archive, except those paintings are never cleaned."
Michael blinked. "You assign twelve elite guards for empty rooms? That's a new wrinkle. You Pith take your art very seriously."
Arrina managed a weak smile, fighting the growing worry gnawing at her belly. "Not without reason. Not all miraklas involve flora and fauna, and the miraklas of Pith children quite often take shape in canvas and paint."
"Nosamae Descending," he breathed. He closed his eyes again.
"That's the most famous, but certainly not the most dangerous."
His blue eyes snapped open. "Pithdai has paintings more dangerous than the one that ended the Nosamae War?"
"At least Nosamae Descending requires so many other, lesser miraklas that activating it is probably impossible." She shrugged. "In Pithdai, though, I know of six paintings that are doorways to other worlds. Empire of Brass allows travel both ways, because an army of brass soldiers walked out of it a few centuries back. We lost seven thousand soldiers turning back that invasion, and three thousand more were on the far side of the painting when the masons finished covering it with a brick wall. Pith scholars were pretty sure that a mere cloth cover prevented passage, but our generals didn't want to take any chances."
Michael's eyes bulged. "Mira's golden locks! Why didn't they just destroy the painting?"
"Miraklas are nearly indestructible."
"Nearly? It seems worth the effort to get rid of something like that."
Arrina sighed. Farlanders will never understand Wen magic. They're used to magic that has rules. She wasn't sure she'd ever understand it either, but she had spent her life around Wen.
"It's more complicated than that. It takes a mirakla to destroy a mirakla, and it usually has to be a mirakla intended to destroy that mirakla, and you're talking about something most very young children never even manifest. Most of those that do only produce very minor ones. Even the Wen have absolutely no idea what causes miraklas."
"So you can't eliminate the danger. You can only contain it."
"But doesn't that mean delivering this ransom is completely impossible?"
"Yes, but I'm not sure the kidnappers know that."
"Or care," Arrrina agreed.
Michael closed his eyes again, leaning against the wall. Arrina felt her own eyes drooping, and was just wondering if Michael had fallen asleep when he sat up again, brushing his hands on pants.
"I have absolutely no idea what the kidnappers actually want," he said. "If they were merely incompetent, they couldn't have kidnapped Kaspar in the first place. If they want a specific painting, they could have just asked for it by name. If they wanted Kaspar dead, they could have killed him, rather than waiting until the ransom doesn't show up."
Arrina felt even more worried. Those were all of her conclusions, too. If Michael can't figure out something new about this ... She didn't let the thought finish, saying, "Smells like a conspiracy, doesn't it?"
"It smells like us, to be honest."
"Except without the justice. My father has enemies, but he has never done anything to anyone to justify something like this."
"Do you think that's why he's sending you — to find out who is behind this and render judgment?"
Father certainly knows what kind of work we do. Arrina hated the idea that he thought he could simply point the Senserte at his problems of state and expect them to do his dirty work. The Senserte never took direction. They chose their marks based on consensus agreement between their members.
Arrina knew she couldn't just turn her back on her half-brother, though. Kaspar could be childish and egotistical at times, but he was her blood. Besides, his death could set off a succession war for the throne of Pithdai. Larus had no siblings, but he had plenty of cousins.
"You're right," she said, her stubborn anger rising. "Except for one thing."
"If they're powerful enough to kidnap Kaspar, they probably aren't the ones who will be waiting for us to deliver — or not deliver — the paintings. We're Senserte. We need to find out who is pulling the strings and punish them, not their accomplices — willing, unknowing, or otherwise."
Michael held up his hands. "Even if you weren't looking at me like you might stab me to death for disagreeing with you, I won't argue with you on that count."