The name’s Cartier. Mercedes Cartier. Anyone asks, I’ll swear I’m a “secretary.” That’s what my card says, so it must be true.
Mostly, I keep my head down, do my job. But I’m not about to let power-hungry traitors get away with murder. Or crazy demon-fairy-things seduce my boss. Or psycho cannibal children eat me.
Honestly, I probably shouldn’t be having so much fun.
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I kept thinking about power dynamics, and about how whether we have power or not depends in a huge way on simply whether we recognize we have the ability to make a choice in every situation. Oh, there will be consequences to any choice (and the choice to do nothing is still a choice). But that's a lot of what power is.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Mostly, they seemed to come up with themselves. I wanted to hit the Xanatos Speed Chess trope for my protagonist, with maybe a bit of The Trickster thrown in. Beyond that, I played with fairytale types — I have a great love of taking known tropes and turning them on their heads.
Silvertip’s street pattern is about as simple as a polyalphabetic substi¬tution cipher with three levels of transposition. There’s constantly road construction at the taxpayers’ expense to “improve” the maze, which just goes to show that politicians use a different dictionary from the rest of us.
Luc and I moved to Silvertip three years ago, at Francis’s behest. I’d completed my degree and was hunting for a job that didn’t involve teaching or flipping crêpes, and Luc’s home business had taken off enough that he could afford to move out of our parents’ house. Funny how, for all of us, our primary goal had been to get away from Batata Prefecture.
After moving, one of the very first things I learned about life in Silvertip City was the necessity of a GPS. My pride rebelled, but con¬stantly getting lost and being late for job interviews is terrific for quashing pride. It’s not like I was even driving most places: after Francis got tired of my borrowing his truck, I was taking the bus most of the way and then getting lost walking the last few blocks. We’re talking pathetic here.
Or not so much, considering Silvertip. You see, Silvertip has straight roads that you think ought to be curved and curved roads that ought to be straight. One-way streets abruptly go one way the opposite direction or become two way and then end at concrete pillars. Beyond anything, Silvertip is in love with circles. They call themselves boulevards, lanes, streets, drives, and roads, but they’re lying. They’re circles. Except when a circle would be particularly convenient.
I’m explaining all this to make it perfectly clear that what happened next was not my fault. I did everything right. I set the car’s GPS, and I obeyed it. I noted familiar landmarks. I glimpsed Al’s news¬stand and knew that I was one block from the parking garage. The parking garage itself was actually within eyeshot when my two-way street turned one way, the wrong way, and forced me into a detour.
The GPS did not yell at me, but I detected snideness in its suggestion to turn around when possible.
I didn’t lose my temper at it. That was another thing Silvertip had taught me: the GPS doesn’t care.
“Recalculating,” it announced. “In five-point-three miles, take your second right.”
Good thing I’d started out with a full tank of gas. I turned right after five-point-three miles, took my third left, and circled three roundabouts.
“Arriving in fifty yards,” the GPS informed me. “Destination on the left.”
No way was I fifty yards from the parking garage. We weren’t any¬where near the right part of town—this seemed to be a warehouse district near the docks. I expected that if I rolled down the window, I’d be able to smell the Gyllan River.
“You have reached your destination,” the GPS informed me.
I slowed and pulled over . . . across the street from the bricks and mirrored windows of the auction house. “Don’t tempt me,” I muttered at the glass dome glinting mysteriously in the streaks of red and gold sky.
Had my boss really gone to consult a seidkonur? The more I thought about it, the more unlikely it sounded. But he had been un¬comfortable, so the story he told me fit. Besides—what would he find so embarrassing that he’d think a seidkonur the less shameful story? And why had he felt compelled to tell me anything instead of main¬taining his usual closed lips?
I grabbed the GPS and poked at it to stop myself from giving in to my desire to march inside the auction house and find out what was going on. I figured the GPS had gotten confused when I’d missed my original destination—thank you, Silvertip—and so had redirected me back here. “Dear confused, sorry GPS,” I said to it, “we’re going to attempt a different route. Try not to bring me back here, or you’re going to be demoted.”
As it calculated, I pulled back out. Traffic had vanished at some point—I guess everyone who worked around here had already headed home—so I had enough concentration to do as I had threatened and search the radio for a talk show.
“—honey, if you know your boyfriend’s unfaithful—”
“—God’s unending love in your life—”
“—have to make an example of them. If Vela believes—”
This street . . . wasn’t right. I pulled over again and took a good look at the GPS map, but it still said the correct destination. I had asked it for a detour, I supposed, and if it was compensating for traffic, this might really be the fastest route. Certainly, the roads were aban¬doned enough.
Suspicious but willing to play along, I kept following the GPS’s directions. Left, right, ahead, keep—
“Oh, come on,” I complained as we arrived back in front of the auction house. “I warned you!”
Once again, what happened next was not my fault. I did every¬thing right. I used my phone’s GPS app and set the address for the parking garage. But once again, I ended up back at the auction house.
By this point, I was far too frustrated for talk shows and had turned to Japanese metal and then given up on the radio entirely—and things only got worse. They went like this:
I set the address for my home, in case the parking garage was just too tricky, and ended up back at the auction house. I set the car and phone GPSes simultaneously for Tey Prefecture, and ended up back at the auction house. I decided to rely on my imperfect memory of how we’d arrived, and ended up back at the auction house. I employed maze theory and tried taking every right turn (and ended up on a one-way street dead end, which caused some illegal maneuvering to escape), every left turn (and ended up in an endless series of concentric circles leading nowhere), and every other left-right turn (and nearly drove into the river). I tried taking the opposite turn of whatever the GPSes, in extremely improbable and unnerving synchrony, told me to do.
“Turn around when possible,” they insisted. “Destination ahead. Turn around when possible. Destination on your right.”
In the end, I pulled back into the auction house parking lot. It was nearly seven-thirty by that point, and the sun touched the horizon, sending brilliant rays across the sky in its swan song. All around, the streets were barren and the warehouses dark, but this parking lot was as I’d left it: half full of cars, motorcycles, and bicycles ranging from the ridiculously overpriced to the disgustingly rusted.
“I,” I said aloud, “am calm, collected, and professional.” I repeated the phrase once or twice more until I almost believed it, and then rang my boss.
The call went directly to voicemail.
Long meeting? Or had he just forgotten to turn his phone back on? Had he already left? Regardless, the only help I was going to get was inside that auction house.
“So you see, I have to go in,” I told the dash, listening to the words to make sure they sounded convincing. “It’s not nosiness: it’s despera¬tion. I need to ask for directions . . . or better yet, drive him back.”
Yes, I had a cast-iron excuse for butting in. So that was one good thing to come out of this whole mess. And maybe—morning dawned on the new idea—maybe he’d be pleased about not having to take a taxi home.
Real pleasure in my boss is a joy to witness, and a rare one. Any¬one who meets him can see his obviously impressive points: his cryp¬tologic brilliance, his breadth of knowledge, his impeccable grooming. But it’s the subtler, rarer aspects of him I most appreciate: the delight in his eyes when he hits upon a solution; the arid slice of his humor, too often mistaken for seriousness; the warmth of his honest praise. I’d worked for him for five months before beginning to understand him—and before beginning to perceive that most people never did.
Attempting to explain this to my brothers had been a mistake.
Just in case he turned on his phone, and to bolster my case for dis¬obeying him, I shot him a text explaining the situation before hopping out of the car.
It really is amazing what a difference perspective can make. I practically skipped up the stairs to the dark double doors. I grabbed one heavy metal bar, and tugged.
Noise, smell, and color rushed out at me from a hot mass of human¬ity. The interior of the auction house was absolutely packed with people, talking or yelling and stinking of sweat, perfume, cigarettes, and a hundred other aromas rendered intolerable by thick atmosphere and overcrowding.
The people were as varied as their odors: rich and poor, young and old, pretty and plain. I heard accents from each of Carina’s nine pre¬fectures as well as from Akter and Vela and perhaps even further afield. Here was as diverse a collection of people as I’d ever encoun¬tered, and none of them paid me the least attention. So I stuck out my elbows, planted an unassailable expression across my face, and dug in.
Body heat enveloped me immediately, and I heard snippets of a dozen conversations, most of them about the weather. I elbowed my way further in, and the crowd parted enough for me to get a good look around.
The auction house’s interior designer, with more extravagance than taste, had decked out the lobby in red velvet and gilt. It looked like an opera house: gaudiness and cheapness masquerading as style.
In the dead center of the lobby was a central island desk—a circu¬lar structure enclosed by ceiling-high glass and hosting four of what I assumed to be information clerks. All four were handsome, male, black-haired, and wearing a starched white uniform, gold choker, and secretive eyes.
There wasn’t any furniture about, but there were doors: the ex¬terior double doors through which I’d come, double auction-hall doors, bathrooms, and three others with plaques I couldn’t read from this distance and certainly not through the crowd.
I checked around twice for my boss and didn’t see him—not that I expected he’d hang about in a crowd like this. Even under ordinary circumstances, he hates crowds, but this crowd struck me as having a particularly unhealthy atmosphere. Why was everyone out here any¬way, instead of in the auction hall?
I shook my head and elbowed my way past a sequined woman and a pajamaed teen to the nearest information clerk. Like most men, this one was a head taller than me despite my power heels. “Hello!” I shouted, pitching my voice to cut through crowd and glass. “I’m look¬ing for someone! He had a meeting!”
The clerk tapped the glass, where someone had taped a schedule of the day’s auctions. Dubious, I read the schedule. It was distinctly lacking in useful information, such as “Jon Nordfeld is behind Door 3,” but it did tell me exactly when I’d need to bid if I wanted an eighteenth-century distressed mirror (the schedule didn’t say what had upset it) or a bottle of wine older than my Akterian grandfather.
“No!” I shouted through the glass. “I’m looking for the meeting room. Meeting room!”
It was no good. The clerk should have worked for the Carinan Security Service, he was so good at not changing his expression. I needed a different tactic—and someone who could actually hear me.
In an instant, I’d dumped my businesslike pose. I curled inward, and looked around with wide eyes, vulnerable and helpless.
It took approximately 1.8 seconds for a man in a tux to come to my rescue. He had gelled silver-fox hair, manicured nails, and the air of an aging film star. “Are you lost?” he asked—or that’s how I read his lips. He bent toward me, all concern and slightly closer than the crowd justified.
“I’m supposed to go to the meeting room,” I explained, neck ex¬posed, eyes blinking through the shadow of my lashes. “But I’ve never been here before.”
“Come with me,” he said, taking my arm. He led me through the crowd, free arm held before us to protect me as I shrank in close. This method was distinctly less effective than my elbows, but I wanted to let him feel useful. We arrived at the door labeled UPPER ROOMS, which he propelled me through and then shut behind us.
The noise cut off. Not a hundred percent, but close. That was some serious soundproofing there.
“Phew,” I said, smiling up at him. “The fire department would have a fit if it knew about that.”
“It’s not usually this crowded,” he apologized. “They’ll be back in the auction hall soon enough—once the private items have been sold.”
I continued oozing charm. “Then thank you even more for taking the time to help me out. I hope it won’t make you late—but I guess we’d better hurry. The meeting room must be . . . this way?”
I was playing my role, but, aging-actor look or not, the man failed the chivalrous part I’d assigned him. He didn’t budge. His face took on a sly look more suited for a villain as he said, “I’d be happy to take you the rest of the way. I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”
I processed this in a blink. Being creepily propositioned by strange men isn’t that unusual for me—it’s just one of the reasons I’m not big on public transport—but the men who try it immediately upon meeting me usually have worse teeth. I’d have to reevaluate my damsel-in-distress signal. “No,” I said.
“Nothing comes without a price,” he informed me, “and I am a reasonable man.”
My fingers crept into my handbag. “Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll find my own way. That reasonable enough for you?”
He reached out to pat my shoulder, and I stepped back sharply, exchanging my scrunched shoulders and tilted head for square-on alpha posing, vulnerability erased. He twitched, but he didn’t give up. “I led you this far,” he said. “You owe me for that, even if you go the rest of the way alone . . . and I wouldn’t advise going alone.”
I removed the pepper spray from my purse, and made sure he saw me thumbing off the safety.
“Hey!” he cried. “Come on, don’t—there’s no need for that. I did you a favor—”
“Out,” I ordered, not raising my voice. “Back to the lobby.”
The man shrank back, feeling for the doorknob. “You wouldn’t really spray me, would you?” he said, attempting a smile.
I stayed where I was, pepper spray in a steady hand. “Out.”
It was almost enough to make me feel bad, how much he crum¬pled. But he had his pride to satisfy, and he rallied. “With that attitude,” he warned, “no one will want to make a deal with you. The propri¬etress doesn’t like people who don’t keep their bargains.”
“Three,” I said. “Two.”
He whipped the door open in a gust of noise and sweat, and slammed it between us.
I waited a ten count before lowering the pepper spray, heart racing. Funny, how being small and young-looking makes the preda¬tors of the world think you’re easy prey.
More fool they. Larger women—those who almost never get perved on—are generally far gentler and more naïve than we small ones. They don’t have to learn viciousness in the cradle.
I replaced the pepper spray in its easy-access holster and contin¬ued inward. The hallway wasn’t long—only a couple of dozen steps—and it ended at a steep, well-trod spiral staircase. Up I went, and pushed through the heavy fire door at the top.
The room beyond was windowless but brightly lit with sunny yellow lights. Milling people scrutinized displays, murmuring to them¬selves and to one another, scrawling numbers on silent-auction forms. Occasionally, a high-pitched laugh edged with hysteria interrupted the dignity of the proceedings, and everyone pretended they hadn’t heard it.
Like in the lobby, here was a wide variety of humanity; but here, the offness of the people struck me more, and gave them a certain uniformity. I couldn’t identify what, exactly, was bothering me—and I was too distracted to try.
The interior decorator had really outdone himself. Everything was green. Grassy carpet, emerald velvet displays and damask wallpaper, avocado ceiling. The furniture had been painted green and bore green cushions. The items for auction, although admittedly not always green, were nature themed: exotic flowers, gems, and . . . living creatures.
I didn’t recognize most of the animals, but I was pretty sure the ones I did recognize were endangered or non-native. Although not behind glass—they were tethered or in fine-mesh wire cages—they made no noise and no attempt to escape.
Forget the fire marshal. I’d be contacting Animal Welfare the moment I got out of here.
I walked on, not caring to ask anyone which way. The sorts of people who came to bid in a place like this weren’t ones to whom I’d like to be beholden, even for directions. Besides, there was only one exit. It wasn’t like I could get lost.
I turned through a curtained arch and into a room as blue as the first one had been green. Appropriately enough, this one was filled with water-themed merchandise—from shells to fish to miniature ships. The room after that was purple and sold cloth, sewing machines, and (unless I was misunderstanding) seamstresses. Then came a pink room decked out like a child’s play area; then a red room like a beauty salon, if beauty salons carried liposuction machines, plastic surgeons, and disturbingly real-looking replacement noses, eyeballs, ears, and fingernails.
That red room was the worst so far, but each of the rooms was horrible. The change was gradual, from green to red, but you couldn’t miss it. Room by room, the conversation faded and the faces became more drawn: the skin grayer, the eyes bleaker. If I’d seen anyone from that red room on the street, I’d have thought him a heroin addict. As it was, I suspected the addiction of choice was something else.
And I had not yet found my boss, who had gone this way. Who had not wanted me to tag along. Who had seemed nervous.
Swallowing hard, I wiped my hands on my skirt and passed into the next room.
I expected black or brown to be next, but it was gold: gold as vibrant and oppressive as any of the colors that had come before. There were no bidders currently in this room, although the bidding papers showed there had been. No bidders—but I was not alone.
There were eighteen podiums, and on each stood a human being clothed in gold cloth draped in the ancient Grecian style. They posed, skin painted gold.
There was an ideal for everyone, in this room, a perfect cross-section of Carinan beauty: old, middle-aged, young adult, child; short and tall; male and female. The youngest was maybe eight years old, maybe nine. She looked like she belonged in a commercial, with her cherubic cheeks and glossy locks. The paper at her feet told the story of a bidding war between two numbers. She would not look at me or speak.
The others had no problem looking; their eyes followed me across the room.
I paused again in front of the last display, the one next to the exit. The man who stood on it was about my boss’s age but had a consider¬ably more heroic build. One arm extended before him; the other reeled back, as if about to throw a discus.
“Don’t you get sore, posing like that?” I asked him.
His head inclined ever so slightly, the better to stare at me. I sup¬pose I was an irregularity in this place, not looking like a strung-out drug addict.
“If I bid on you,” I said, “what would I get?”
His voice was ordinary, his accent from Hemmel Prefecture. “Me.”
“You mean you’d be my slave?”
“My debt would transfer to you.”
He twitched a finger to indicate the bidding sheet. “Until my debt was paid off.”
There was a number on the top right of the sheet that I’d taken for an item code. It was long, and I didn’t have the key to decipher it.
The golden man’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Unless,” he said, “you would like to make a private deal—just between you and me.”
That was what the aged-actor type had wanted too. I reevaluated his proposition in light of this information. I still didn’t know what he’d been after, but I definitely should have pepper-sprayed him.
“Make a private deal?” I echoed. “But what would the proprietress think?”
I said it to provoke a reaction, and I sure got one. His expression seized up; his eyes resumed their middle-distance stare; and I could not get him or anyone else in that room to speak to me again no matter what I said. So I left them behind.
This room had a door, not a curtained arch, and I found it was the last room on the level. Beyond it lay only a whitewashed stairwell with a whitewashed staircase going up and, at the top, a whitewashed door. The place smelled like whitewash too, and my heels clicked on the wooden floor.
I didn’t go up immediately; I prefer not to rush headlong into potentially dangerous situations. So I stopped, leaned against the stair rail, and really thought.
Point one: this place was incredibly bizarre.
Point two: there weren’t any guards. Half the displays must be ille¬gal—slavery certainly was—but the auction house didn’t even have a doorman to stop curious personal assistants from wandering in after their errant bosses.
Point three: nothing I’d witnessed thus far had any connection to seidr. I could definitely reject any lingering notions about my boss coming here to consult a seidkonur. Which meant whomever he had come to see must be not only much less respectable, but also much less probable.
Those three points were bad enough on their own, but the fourth was the worst: I had tried to leave, and I had failed. Silvertip roads are bizarre and twisted, but they don’t actively change on you, and they don’t mess with what satellites are telling your GPS. I could accept it if the car’s GPS went out of date or wonky; things break. But for my independent phone, actively streaming updated information, to go crazy in exactly the same way as the car GPS? And my memory is generally excellent. I should have been able to find my way back on my own. Eventually.
I called my boss’s phone again, and again got his voicemail.
My fingers tapped the railing. I’ve always been a firm believer that seidr is superstitious nonsense because magic isn’t real. But this—this seemed like magic. The really ugly sort of magic that makes you crave it more and more even as it takes everything you have. The sort of magic that a man with a towering IQ might think that he could turn to his advantage because he wouldn’t fall into the same mistakes as most people. He would be careful with his words. He wouldn’t leave any exploitable loopholes in his bargaining.
Like I said, my boss is by far the most brilliant man I’ve ever met, but he can be a total idiot when it comes to people. And he doesn’t read his fairytales.
With a feeling of coming to the end of things, I climbed the stairs and pushed into the room beyond.
Links to Purchase Print Books
Buy Bargaining Power Print Edition at Amazon
Links to Purchase eBooks – Click links for book samples and reviews
Buy Bargaining Power On Amazon
Have you read this book? Tell us what you thought! All information was provided by the author and not edited by us. This is so you get to know the author better.