I’ve had plenty of dealings with the Twilight Valley over the years, and almost every single time I’ve come away with a sour taste. They’re slippery, real shady like. When you’re negotiating with Junkworld scavengers along the Barrier Rondel or bartering with the spectral thralls of the Demon Road it’s fair to expect some degree of treachery, but these plump little farmhands have no business behaving so contemptuously.
If crystals weren’t such a big deal throughout the System I wouldn’t even have to bother with these idiots at all, but there are very few places where they grow these days and most of those places are more trouble to navigate than they’re worth — crystals might fetch good money, but you can’t spend it if you’re dead. In the end, when it comes down to negotiating a difficult business situation with a shifty merchant or an ancient emerald wyrm, I know which one I feel more comfortable going up against.
And so it was that once again, we were making the painstaking balloon ride down into the valley from Overcloud Wharf. It irritates me no end that Himalia and Khasgar insist on adhering to the slowest, most unreliable mode of transport in the galaxy as a way of getting around, but the last time I landed my ship in the village they tried to strip it for parts, the scumbags. So these days I’ve resigned myself to paying the extortionate mooring tariffs and remunerating myself later with a little extra crystal cash. It’s all standard practice I assure you.
Lately I’ve been dealing solely with a small village right on the edge of the sunken pit, which for those who don’t know much about Himalia, is the outward manifestation of a planet caving in on itself. Intensive crystal farming is like deboning a fangle: in the end all you’re left with is a big pile of amorphous stuff. In my humble opinion, Himalia doesn’t have very long left before it completely collapses, which may or may not be the motivation behind the increased frequency of my visits. There’s good crystal to be had here and I’d rather not see it go to waste for the sake of a little cataclysm.
I like this particular village because I’ve found the farmers here to be far easier to tolerate than their neighbours. I’d actually go as far as saying that the gaffer here is almost pleasant to deal with. Over the past few visits we’ve managed to reach some very profitable terms that are in no way an exploitation of his naivety regarding the current state of the crystal market — living so far from the rest of civilisation tends to have that effect — and I’d appreciate it if you stopped asking me about it.
‘They’re having another feast,’ observed Southpaw, leaning over the edge of the basket in a way that always makes my stomach turn. I’m not particularly afraid of heights, no more than meets good sense, but decent strong-arms are hard to come by and Southpaw is as clumsy as he is intimidating.
‘It’s the spirit season, what do you expect. Stop leaning over the basket like that, you’ll tip us all out.’
Southpaw wasn’t listening. ‘Do you think they have enough for guests?’ he asked, his inattentive ears whipping at the sapphire flies burring above our heads.
‘I’m not eating their slop!’ protested Half-Nut, my articulate and well-mannered cargo master. ‘They grind crystals up and sprinkle them in their soup, it’s nasty.’
‘Stop believing everything you hear Half-Nut, nobody eats crystals just like nobody eats gold. And no Southpaw, we’re not staying here any longer than we need to, the magic crackle is already giving me a headache.’
We disembarked at the landing overlooking the waterfall, leaving the grizzled balloon master to figure out how much we’d paid him, and descended the stairs into the village. By the looks of things, they were gearing up for the biggest feast of the season, the Emberglow Banquet, which meant the crystal harvest was done and we wouldn’t need to come back for a long while. The food did smell good though, and I half regretted being so forceful in shutting down Southpaw’s suggestion. We climbed up onto the platform where the crystal cache stood, and I was surprised to see it was the gaffer’s son who was sat outside, poring over transaction sheets. Along the platform, labourers were loading the store at a pace that suggested they were keen to be done in time for the festivities.
‘Henrik,’ I said, approaching the table. ‘Is your dad around?’
Henrik looked up from his papers and fixed me with a cold stare. ‘Oh. Hello, Marchioness. No I’m afraid my father is not around. He took an early retirement. I’m the gaffer here now.’
Henrik stood, and I realised he was actually quite tall, certainly much taller than his old man. Sharper, too. This wasn’t going to be as easy as anticipated.
‘I had a feeling you’d come sniffing around my harvest. I know you’ve been swindling us’ — he gestured to the pile of ledgers on the table — ‘and I assure you that that ship has sailed.’
Naturally, I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about Henrik.’
Henrik bristled at my use of his name, which was strange because I was only trying to get under his skin a little bit. ‘You don’t know what I mean? Let’s just have a look at what I mean, shall we?’ He grabbed one of the ledgers, a hideous battered old thing bound in cheap Enachan leather, and flipped to the incriminating page so fast I’m certain that this entire scenario had been prepared for and scripted.
‘Here, on the ninth night of Esper, you took six crates at 𝛌600 each—’
’—the exchange rate was favourable that day—’
‘—and here, on the twelfth night of Nelecrae, you took eight crates at 𝛌400 each—‘
‘—some of them were chipped, it was a fair markdown—’
‘—and then last month, and this one’s my favourite, you stole four crates at 𝛌700 for the whole lot!’ He slammed the book shut and threw it down on the table, scattering the papers he’d been so meticulously working on moments before. I gave him a second to catch his breath.
‘I’m fairly certain it’s not stealing if I paid for what I took.’
The coldness of his expression made Niamine look tropical. ‘You have been stealing from my business, from my family, for long enough. I know you had my father fooled, no doubt you seduced him, but believe me when I say it ends here. You’ve made us the laughing stock of the valley, and I will have my due recompense.’
Due recompense? I was wrong. This guy wasn’t sharp, he was a moron. I cocked an eyebrow; Southpaw cracked his knuckles. Half-Nut choked back a sneeze.
‘Alright then, gaffer. Tell me what it is that you want.’
The fact that he wasn’t getting rattled was starting to annoy me. Either he wasn’t aware of who he was dealing with, or he was and just didn’t care. The latter was more concerning since it implied he was somewhat unhinged, and doing business with the unhinged is rarely productive.
‘An interesting question. Why don’t I show you. Khazbor! Bhzal!’
The two hulking Dhalian Peacemakers were not what I was expecting when they emerged from inside the cache, and they most certainly complicated matters — at seven feet tall, the twin giants stood at least a head and shoulder above Southpaw, which placed us at something of a disadvantage.
Henrik’s victorious smile curdled when he turned to address the pair. ‘Don’t you remember what we rehearsed?’ Khazbor looked at Bhzal (or maybe Bhzal looked at Khazbor, it hardly matters), and both shrugged. ‘The crates, you imbeciles! Go and get the crates!’
A dim recognition carried them back inside, and they returned momentarily with what I imagine was originally intended to be the triumphant climax of this bizarre charade. I eyed the crates the giants had dropped at my feet, and then eyed Henrik.
‘What are these supposed to be?’
Henrik’s smile slithered back across his face. ‘This is my premium stock.’
Neither of us said anything for a very long moment. Half-Nut suppressed another sneeze.
‘Is there something wrong, Marchioness?’
‘You know perfectly well what’s wrong Henrik.’
The gaffer laughed. ‘Yes, well. I’m afraid until you pay me what you owe from the last, what was it, five visits? Plus interest, of course, and then damages… Well, until then, this is all you’re getting.’
That familiar sour taste of the valley was coming back, reminding me exactly why I hated this place. There’s nothing I despise more than being held to ransom, especially when it’s by a cretin like Henrik who, if it wasn’t for his hired goons, would now most certainly be in a classic Southpaw viper-grip. If only we’d brought Grendel with us instead of Half-Nut, but the idiot had insisted that he needed to soak his feet after the ordeal in the Decharon swamps. I suppose it serves me right for getting complacent.
‘I’m fairly certain these crates don’t contain crystals. And unfortunately I don’t have any interest in any other stock, premium or otherwise.’
That smile was getting uncomfortable look at. ‘Marchioness, you are misunderstanding me. Until you pay what you owe, this is all that is available to you. And frankly, it’s more than you deserve.’
I looked back down at the crates and had to struggle to contain my outrage. Half-Nut wasn’t so successful.
‘Listen buddy! Nobody talks to the Lioness like that, least of all some whelp piggybacking off his pappy’s wealth! You can stuff your crystals up your backside, we’ll go elsewhere — there’re plenty of farmers in this valley who’d beg for our custom!’
Seemingly relishing the uncomfortable silence that fell afterwards, Henrik took an eon to reply.
‘Let me be perfectly clear. You will accept the goods I have provided. You will pay for the goods I have provided. Then, you will take these goods that I have provided and you will leave and never return. And if that message still doesn’t sink in, than perhaps this one will: there are Peacemakers in every village in the valley, and it seems pertinent to mention that of them all, Khazbor and Bhzal here are the most amenable.’
It was Khazbor’s turn to crack knuckles, whilst Bhzal removed the vast hammer from his back and leant on it, staring us down with violent yellow eyes. Southpaw growled in retaliation, but from the way his ears were flickering I could tell he wasn’t feeling particularly confident about our chances. Half-Nut suddenly didn’t seem so chatty.
As much as I hate to admit it, the bastard had me. What was worse was how much he knew it.
‘So, Marchioness,’ he said, the smile that had been plastered across his face all throughout this exchange now adopting a saccharine tinge that made it all the more disturbing. ‘Shall I fetch the balance book?’
The journey back was unbearable. Henrik had employed a mastermind level of deviancy in providing us with an escort back to the platform, to ‘ensure the protection of the cargo’, so we couldn’t even unload the burden until we we’d ascended far enough that there was no chance of one of the twins standing on the other’s shoulders and scooping us out of the sky.
‘I can’t believe how much they charged us for a load of crates of—‘
‘Don’t say it, Southpaw. Don’t even think it. Just get rid of them.’
‘I could have taken them,’ said Half-Nut, struggling to lift a crate over the edge of the basket. ‘They used to call me Lightning Thunder back on The Beatnik.’
‘That name doesn’t make sense,’ said Southpaw, grabbing the crate out of Half-Nut’s hands before he caused an inconvenience. ‘Lighting is thunder, it’s like calling me Snow Rain.’ I didn’t even feel like correcting him.
Half-Nut was still riled up though, and spent the remainder of the ascent suggesting ways to exact our revenge whilst Southpaw did the rest of the heavy lifting. ‘We’ll come back with a horde of Anakarii and destroy their whole village!’
’No,’ I said, looking out across the sunken pit and coming to an ominous realisation. ‘Somehow I don’t think they’ll need us for that.’
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