The Forked Path
Note: This is the second story about Danika. Although it should stand alone, you might want to read The Root of All Things first.
“He who sees no options is blind.” –Ansauan Proverb
10th day of Kaart, 472 AC
Danika had never been so tired in her entire life. Her entire body seemed to be in protest, with shaky legs and a thick heaviness in her chest. She focused on the fatigue as she half-stumbled to one of the benches that bordered the training yard, it was better than thinking of the bruises and soreness that would surely await her when she woke up in the morning. She hardly noticed when Sefa came and sat next to her.
“Are you going to be alright?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she lied.
“Listen, I know this is hard for you to hear, but I can’t let you keep your old job,” he said.
Even though she had known what he would say, deep down, hearing the words was something else entirely. Something inside of her deflated. She bent over, face in her hands. She didn’t cry, but it was a close thing. Instead of being a comfort, Sefa’s arm around her shoulders only served to underscore the fundamental way their relationship had changed. He was no longer her captain. She had done nothing but train and practice for the last two months, she was in the best condition of her life, but it hadn’t been enough.
“If it’s any consolation, you beat the hell out of me,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone fight harder.”
“Thanks.” The kindness pushed her over the edge, and the tears started to leak out. She tried to wipe them away, but more came. Sefa squeezed her tighter. She could picture her comrades walking past, seeing her. She could also picture Sefa staring down any of them who stopped or looked too long. She pulled herself together and sat up, wiping her eyes. “So what now?”
“I can recommend you for a position with the Auditors,” he said.
“You want me to join them?”
“I know it’s not ideal, but at least you would still be part of the Guard,” he said.
“That’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?” she asked. “The Guard helps people, what do the Auditors do?” Technically he was right, the Guard and the Auditors were part of the same organization, but the reality of the situation was another matter entirely.
“I know it’s not what you wanted, but give it some thought,” he said. “Just don’t take too long.”
“I heard you in the bathroom,“ Valia said. “Are you pregnant or something?“
“Not unless you know something I don‘t,“ Danika said. “I think I‘m just sick.“ She still felt tired and weak from the sparring with Sefa the day before, it wasn‘t any surprise that she was coming down with something, too. It was the first time in her life that she had been ill for more than a couple of hours, and if the doctors hadn’t warned her about it, she would be sure that she was dying. As it was, she wasn’t entirely convinced that she would survive whatever it was that she had.
“Do you need a–“ Valia began before realizing that offering Danika Ve wouldn‘t do any good. “Sorry. Is there anything I can do?“
“I think that I need some rest,“ Danika said. She sat down on the couch that dominated the common area and pulled a blanket over her. Even though it was warm out, she was freezing. It wasn‘t until after she had gotten comfortable that she saw the look of helplessness on her friend‘s face. “Actually, I could use some breakfast and tea, if you have time.”
Valia immediately brightened, and soon came out of the kitchen carrying a bowl of something and a cup of tea, both steaming. “Oh yeah, you’ve been so busy this last month, I’ve been keeping notes about the paper for you. Do you want to see them?”
“That would be great,” Danika said. Danika had all but forgotten about the paper. Part of it was resentment, she had been so single-minded when she was working on the project that she had been careless while harvesting Ika leaves and they had taken root in her, resulting in her inability to use Ve.
Valia handed her a sheaf of paper before heading off to her shift with the Guard. Danika wished that her friend was less considerate, or mean, or something. She needed someone to resent.
Danika didn’t expect for there to be much of interest in the pages, she had taken them mostly for Valia’s benefit, but was surprised to find that each day the paper was subtly different. Some days it was bright, some faint, and the color appeared to be gradually shifting from the white that she had seen to a shade of green.
After eating, she was beginning to feel almost human, and went to the closet where she had stored the paper. The paper was still in its drying crate, and true to Valia’s log, it was glowing green, like sun reflecting off of moss covered rocks. When she pulled a sheet off of the stack, it was still white, just as it had been when she had pressed it, which meant that the green hue was due to the light, not the paper.
On the heels of the previous day’s disappointment, the excitement of the unexpected quality of the paper was intoxicating. Danika began to get things together to make another batch, but she was no longer the person that she had been, and as quickly as the energy had filled her, it faded, and she found herself shaking and weak. She put away what she could, and went back to the couch to sleep.
Danika woke up unable to move, and panicked for a moment before realizing that it was just the weight of extra blankets that Valia had piled on top of her. The sun coming in through the window indicated that it was morning again, which meant that she had slept through the entire day and night.
The urge to rush out and make another batch had faded during her torpor, and she found herself thinking of different ways to approach the problem. Her biggest breakthrough in making the paper had come when she realized that the only people who would need special paper like that would be the Council, which had led her to add ika to her recipe. A similar line of reasoning would probably be more effective than making another batch, as she didn’t even know what she wanted to do with the stuff, and it would be pointless to spend a week working on something that she could just as easily achieve with a few well-placed questions. Which meant that she needed to talk to someone in the Council. The only problem was that she didn‘t have any contacts in the Council.
But Sefa did.
The Guard compound was in the center of the city, a short enough walk away that she only had to stop and rest once on the way. She was waved in, and made her way to Sefa’s office. He was there, thankfully, sitting at his desk and working on his never-ending stream of paperwork.
“Yes?” he said when she entered the room, then looked up and smiled. “Danika! I didn’t think that I’d see you again so soon. Have you made up your mind.”
“I haven’t,” she said. “Actually, I came for something else entirely. I was hoping that you could get me a contact in the Council.”
“You want to be a Clerk now?” he asked.
“Tides no. I just need to talk to someone about the paper,” she said. “It doesn’t even have to be someone on the Council, just someone who might be able to answer a few questions.”
“I would, but the only person I know on the Council is Elva, and the only contact I have with her is when I give my monthly briefing.”
“That would work,” she said.
“No, it wouldn’t. I’m not going to send you there to talk to her, it wouldn’t look good,” he said, and her heart sank. “But I do know someone who I think could help you.”
“Anja Vidras,” Sefa said. Danika didn‘t answer, but just stared back at him. “Trust me, if you need to get in touch with the council, she’s your best bet.“
It took a while, but eventually Sefa had convinced Danika to meet with the Auditors, which was how she came to be in the waiting room outside of Anja’s office. The waiting grated on her nerves and she wished she hadn’t promised Sefa that she would be civil.
After what felt like hours, Danika’s patience finally broke and she slid open the door to Anja’s office, ready to tell the woman that . . . Danika stood there, looking into the empty room. She poked her head inside and looked around to make sure no one was waiting in the corners, out of sight. She closed the door and went back to her seat to wait.
“Danika?” a woman’s voice said from the other entrance a few minutes later. Danika stood up and shook Anja’s hand. Anja had short, dark hair and plain clothes that clashed with her delicate features; she didn’t look at all like the mousy bureaucrat that Danika had expected. “I’m so sorry that I’m late, but there was an accident down at the docks and I stayed to help. I hope that you’ll forgive me.” With the mention of an accident, Danika noticed the dirt and other stains on Anja’s pants and sleeves.
“I understand,” Danika said. The the part of her that was still, would always be, a member of the Guard wondered how much of what Anja had said and done was calculated.
“I’m glad you stayed, but I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised, after Sefa spoke so highly of you,” Anja said. She opened the door to her office and waved Danika in ahead of her. When they were both seated on opposite sides of her desk, she continued. “I know how you feel about us, but my goal here is to convince you to give us an honest chance.”
“That sounds fair,” Danika said. Despite herself she found that she was starting to like Anja.
“So, tell me about yourself,” Anja said.
“I grew up here on Bordan, and when it came time for me to join the Vaarplikt, I opted to stay here. I’m the youngest of five, and even if I had much of a desire to follow in my parents’ footsteps and farm bamboo, there was little chance of me ever having much of a say there. So I came here, to Rektval, and was picked to apprentice at a paper shop,” Danika said. The first part was the easy part, the next part was more difficult, and although she was tempted to skip over it, she wouldn’t be surprised if Anja already knew the story. It wasn’t the idea of being disqualified that would have bothered Danika, but rather that Sefa had vouched for her, and any failing on her part would reflect badly on him. “Things went well there until one day I was in the drying room, and I saw that one of the stacks was glowing. Savea, the owner of the shop, told me to forget about it, but I didn’t. When he caught me sneaking in to look at the glowing paper, he fired me.” Danika paused to see if Anja would say anything about this part.
“Go on, we don’t exactly frown on curiosity here,” Anja said, smiling.
“It was at that point that I applied for the Guard. Sefa took pity on me, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” Danika said.
“And what about the ika plant? That’s the reason you’re here, right?” Anja asked.
Ever since I saw that paper, I was fascinated by it,” Danika said. “I made countless batches of paper of the last few years, and nothing worked. Then I realized that it must contain Ika, since everything that interacts with Ve contains it. The only problem was that the Ika that I could afford was either too poor quality or too small quantity to work. So I went out and harvested some for myself. But I was careless, and some of the plant worked its way through my bag and clothes and grew into me. It was only afterward that I learned about how Ika feeds on Ve, and that if I used too much of it, it would grow into my heart and brain and kill me.”
“Which meant that you could no longer be part of the Guard,” Anja said.
“I see.” There was no judgement in Anja’s face or voice. “Sefa tells me that there might be something that I can help you with. An introduction to someone on the council. Did you have anyone in particular in mind?”
“If I could get in contact with whoever is in charge of appropriations,” Danika said.
“That can be arranged,” Anja said. Danika wanted to ask how soon she could meet with the council member, but Anja wasn’t finished. “But I will require something of you, first.”
The words put an immediate lid on Danika’s boiling excitement. “Of course.”
“I want you to spend a shift shadowing one of my Arbiters first,” Anja said.
“And after that I imagine that you will want my decision,” Danika said, and Anja nodded yes. “Is your introduction to the Council dependent on my joining the Auditors?”
“No, of course not,” Anja said. “Can you be here tomorrow morning?”
“I’ll be here,” Danika said.
“This is Teik,” Anja said. Danika stepped forward to shake hands with her partner for the day.
Unlike Anja, Teik conformed to Danika’s idea of what an Auditor should look like. His clothes were clean and pressed, not an errant wrinkle or piece of lint in sight. Rather than amplify a sense of charisma or passion, his neatness instead served to obscure any interesting traits that he might have. Of course, she was careful to tell herself that she might only be seeing what she expected to see. She did her best to ignore herself.
Whereas the Guard had a sprawling compound that contained administrative, training, and detention facilities, the Auditors had a single building that seemed to serve mostly as a place for the Auditors to write their reports. Still, it was so close to the Guard compound that many people in Rektval didn’t distinguish between the two. So it was no surprise to see Valia standing underneath the arched entry to the compound waving with a big grin on her face. Danika ignored her roommate, afraid that she might draw Teik’s attention and make an already awkward situation worse.
“So what’s the plan?” Danika asked when Teik started to look towards the compound. His head snapped around, as though surprised that she could talk. After a few moments of silence, she added, “You don’t seem to be wandering aimlessly. I just want to know what’s on the agenda.”
“A young man name Astin Kaln disappeared last week and we’re going to follow up on it,” Teik said.
“Not really,” he said. “The guy is only nineteen, which means that he probably went to Aans or Stenaku or Kinav on a whim. By the time we figure out what happened, he’ll be back.”
“You seem pretty sure about that,” she said.
“I’ve seen it a dozen times before,” he said.
The two of them made their way through town, stopping first at the Astin’s apartment building. He wasn’t there. Not surprisingly, his neighbors recognized him, but had no idea where he had gone of when he would be back. After that, the two of them made their way to the bakery where he was an assistant. When they arrived, all the baking for the day had been finished, and the lunch rush hadn’t yet hit.
The baker led them back to his cramped office. He had been the one to report Astin missing, but other than that knew nothing, saying only that it was unlike him. After that he went out to get one of Astin’s coworkers, Percival.
“I don’t know what happened, but I was probably the last one here who saw him,” Percival said.
“Yes?” Teik prompted.
“It was early afternoon and we had just gotten off. The two of us went out for a drink, and afterwards we went our separate ways.”
“Is that all?”
“He said that he’d see me the next day. He didn’t seem like he was about to leave,” Percival said.
“I’ll make a note of that,” Teik said. “If anyone hears anything, make sure to let us know.”
“So what now?” Danika asked after they had left the bakery.
“I’ve already checked at the jail and sent an inquiry to the hospital, so the only thing left is to write my report,” Teik said.
“Just write a report? Shouldn’t we try checking with his friends and family, at least? Or the ferry logs?” she asked.
“No,” Teik said. “We shouldn’t. Astin has been gone for a week. At this point he is either dead or, more likely, out having a good time. Sure, something else could have happened, but we have no reason to suspect it.”
“I just can’t believe that you don’t care about him,” Danka said.
“I do care about him, and if this was the only thing I had to work on, I would do all those things and more. But the fact is that there are other people who need our help, people that we _can_ help, but only if we get our priorities straight.”
They walked in silence back to the Auditor headquarters. When they arrived, Anja was waiting for Danika. Teik said something about writing a report and maneuvered his way towards one of the offices.
“So, did you get a sense of what we do here?” Anja asked.
“Yeah,” Danika said, struggling to keep her voice pleasant.
“Well, give it some thought and let me know,” Anja said. “And here’s the name in charge of Council Appropriations for Bordan.” She handed Danika a folded piece of paper.
“Thanks,” Danika said, glancing at the paper before pocketing it. When she had woken up, she had felt almost completely recovered from her illness, but after a few hours with Teik, she just wanted to sleep.
Although Danika had imagined that she would be able to simply knock on Brendan Traasa’s door and ask him questions, that had not been the case. What had actually happened was that she had been told by his assistant that she would have to make an appointment to see him the next day and that she was lucky she wasn’t trying to talk to one of the more senior Council members, as the wait would be even longer in proportion to importance.
“How can I help you?” he asked from behind his desk when she entered his office.
The office was more of a storage room, with every available bit of vertical space taken up by shelves, each of which was labeled and filled with neatly arranged supplies. After the difficulty in getting a meeting with him, Danika was surprised to feel herself relax, not sure if it was due to his casual, direct manner or the familiar smells of paper and ink.
“Thanks for seeing me,” she said. “I had some questions about the paper the Council uses.”
He frowned. “Are you a supplier? I thought you were from the guard.”
“No, I just wanted to ask some questions about it,” she said.
His expression went from annoyance to confusion. “I’m not sure I follow. It’s just paper, like you can find at any Stationer’s store.”
“Sorry, I should have been more clear. I meant the paper that the Council uses when it drafts legislation,” she said.
Brendan leaned back in his chair. “I see. I can’t really help you there. I don’t directly deal with the stuff other than to receive it from Kinav and give it to the Council. You would have to talk to the papermakers there.”
“So the paper comes from Kinav. Are you sure.” she asked, doing her best to keep a straight face.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We only use a few sheets a year, and it would be impractical to make it here.”
“Can I see a sheet of it?” she asked.
He gave her an odd look for a moment. “Of course.”
He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and bent down to unlock something hidden from Danika by his desk. A moment later he was holding a sheet of paper out for her. He held it as though too much pressure from his fingers would destroy it. Danika took it from him just as carefully, only to find it thick and sturdy. The paper looked almost exactly like the batch that was sitting in the drying box in her apartment, with tiny flecks of silvery-green ika. When she held the paper up to the light, she could see the same watermark that she had used as well. Satisfied that the paper she had seen in the paper shop and later replicated was the same as what she was holding, she handed it back across the desk.
After he had put it back and locked the drawer, Danika stood up and leaned over the desk to shake his hand. “Thanks for you time.”
“Anything I can do for the guard,” he said.
She let herself out of the office, and headed straight home from there. She was so distracted by the thoughts bouncing around her head that she had a couple of near collisions with other people on the street.
“What did you find out?” Valia asked the minute Danika entered their apartment.
“According to Brenden Traasa all of the Council paper comes from Kinav,” Danika said.
“I know,” Danika cut her friend off. She had seen the paper before, when she had worked at Savea’s paper shop prior to joining the Guard. “Which means that either he was lying about it or that someone outside of the Council is making official paper.”
“Any idea on which it is?” Valia asked.
“I don’t think that Brendan was lying,” Danika said. “And why would he, anyway?”
“So that means that someone is making counterfeit paper.”
“Danika, I hadn’t expected to see you so soon,” Anja said. “Come in.”
Danika stepped into the office, feeling stiff in the formal clothes. She hadn’t planned it, but Valia didn’t let her leave the apartment without doing her hair and putting on makeup. As a girl she had hated being forced to dress up, but as an adult there were few opportunities for it, turning it from a burden to a special occasion. But still she felt stiff.
“I talked to Teik,” Anja said. The bottom dropped out of Danika’s stomach. “He didn’t seem to think that you would be back, but you didn’t dress up like that to turn down my offer. What changed?”
Had she been sitting across from Sefa, she would have told him everything. He might not have believed her, but she would have told him anyway. With Anja, she knew that if she started talking about counterfeit paper and conspiracy and all the theories that she and Valia had come up with the night before that simply not getting a position with the Auditors would be the best case scenario.
“Teik was right,” she said. “After working with him, I had no intention of accepting the position. If you had asked for my decision right then, I would have told you ‘no’. As it was, I went home and did some thinking. I loved working for the Guard. I love helping people. My life with the Guard is over, whether I like it or not, and as big of a hole it will leave, I worry that not helping people would leave a bigger one.”
“Sefa said that you would say something like that. Offered to place a bet on it, even,” Anja said. “I’m glad I didn’t take him up on it.”
“I’m afraid I was a bit rude to Teik yesterday, I hope I haven’t hurt his feelings,” Danika said.
“I’m not sure that he has any feelings to hurt,” Anja said with a smile. “Don’t worry about it.”
She reached across her desk and shook Danika’s hand.
“Welcome to the Auditors.”
“I’m honored to be here,” Danika said.
This short story is just one part of a larger story, use the links above or the navigation at the top and sidebar of this page to see the rest.