Jenna grunted in exertion as she rubbed the waxy substance into the oak countertops. It was early afternoon and business was slow at the small book store where she had been working for the last several months. As the only employee, it usually fell to her to clean and maintain the pleasant little shop while Nathal, the owner, doted lovingly over any new books under the pretense of inventorying them. But she didn't mind, she actually enjoyed the physical labor. The effort gave her a sense of accomplishment she couldn't get from dealing with customers or reading the books she made her livelihood selling. Not that she didn't try, she just wasn't much good at the useless chatter that made people want to buy something.
The bell above the shop's elegantly decorated front door chimed, startling Jenna from her musings. She looked up, seeing a man of medium height and wiry build enter the shop. His clothes looked expensive but practical, and she noted that his hands never strayed far from the dagger on his hip. He noticed her watching him and, hooking his thumbs casually into his belt, made a show of perusing the books on display. An alarm went off in her head immediately. There was something wrong about the man being there. She doubted he was there to steal anything. Telflam was a lawful city and there wasn't much of value among the crowded shelves in the front of the store, although Nathal did keep some rare and expensive books in the back. Still, thief or no, this man was clearly out of place in a book store.
Uncertain how to deal with her instincts, Jenna decided to deal with the oddly unnerving stranger as a normal customer while remaining wary. Stepping around from behind the counter, she greeted him, "Good afternoon sir, anything special I can help you find?"
Turning slowly, the stranger looked Jenna up and then down again, apparently pleased with what he saw. Jenna noticed a faint scar on his left temple, which made her uneasiness grow until she felt slightly nauseous.
"I'm here to settle our account." he replied smoothly.
Unsure as to what to make of the stranger, Jenna waited for him to continue. He didn't. "I'm not... um, account?"
"Don't waste my time. I'm here for the monthly payment."
"Payment? Payment for what?"
Growing impatient, the stranger snapped at her, "I'm here for the same reason I come to this pathetic hole every month."
Jenna was baffled. Was this man here to rob them?
"Don't play with me girl, I'm here for my money. Now give it over!"
She was still confused as the stranger pushed her out of the way roughly. Fear, anger and outrage rushed through her as she jumped to her feet. If this bastard thought he could just walk in off the street and take anything he wanted he was in for a rude surprise! Letting out an angry yell, Jenna charged the stranger. Hearing her coming, he spun around, lashing out with the back of his hand. It connected with a solid smack, knocking her against the counter. Suddenly the stranger's dagger was in his hand.
Hearing the commotion, Nathal came running out from the back of the store where he had been inspecting several new books. Seeing the stranger standing over Jenna, who was strewn across the countertop, he quickly figured out what had happened.
"Mr. Xian!" he cried, "My most sincere apologies! This is completely my fault. I forgot entirely that you were due this afternoon. Please, give me but one moment to fetch your package."
Keeping his eyes fixed on Jenna while turning his head toward the sweating, overweight shop keep, Xian replied, "You have a 30 count."
Jenna, as scared as she was confused, looked at Nathal with a silent plea for help. He frowned slightly and shook his head, disappearing through the thick curtain separating the private area of the store from the public one.
"I'll be right back Mr. Xian."
Xian's cold look turned into a sneer as he studied Jenna. "You're not very smart are you?" he asked bluntly.
Not knowing how to reply, Jenna stayed quiet, leaning against the counter and trying to stop her heart from pounding through her chest.
"What's the matter?", he taunted, "I knock all the piss n' vinegar out of you?"
Remembering her dignity, Jenna slowly rose to her full height. Still eyeing the knife, she asked, "Who are you?"
Xian snorted and shook his head, "You really don't know do you?" Her puzzled expression made him laugh.
Nathal entered the front room holding a small bag that chinked as he moved. "Mr. Xian, I have your package ready here, with a little something extra for any inconvenience we may have caused you. Please, allow me to apologize again for the confusion."
Xian grabbed the bag from Nathal, making sure to feel the weight of the coins inside. With a satisfied grunt he slipped the bag into his pouch and, after sparing a dirty look for both Nathal and Jenna, glided out the door.
"Jenna! I'm so sorry, I should have told you."
Jenna winced as she reached up and felt the side of her face, which was already starting to swell. "Nathal, who was that man? What's going on? Why did you give him all that money?"
Nathal sighed as he walked over and put his arm gently around her shoulders. She tensed, but didn't pull away. "Business in Telflam is... regulated. There are certain administrative bodies that require a monthly fee to make sure things remain peaceful and consistent enough for commerce to thrive."
"But I thought you just paid the city for a license to open a store in the shop district and that was it. That guy, Zeon, or whoever he was, he didn't even look like he worked for the government." She paused for a moment, thinking. "Nathal that man forces you to pay him every month or he'll kill you!"
At that moment the door chimed as a young, well-to-do looking couple entered the shop. From the look on their faces they had clearly heard Jenna's outburst, and seeing Nathal soothing the bruised teenager stopped them in the doorway. Nathal quickly scampered across the shop toward them.
"Ahhh, good afternoon. My name is Nathal Ogim, and I would normally welcome you to my humble book shop," leaning closer, he lowered his voice conspiratorially, "but at the moment I'm having a bit of a family crisis with my niece" he lied. "If I could trouble you to call again tomorrow I can promise you my full attention. And to make up for any inconvenience I...". Nathal's voice faded into the background as the truth of what had just happened began to sink in. That bastard was stealing from Nathal! Not only that, he was threatening him. Jenna bristled at the memory of Xian's arrogance. By the time Nathal had bustled the couple out of the door with promises of special treatment upon their return, Jenna's disposition had changed from frightened and confused, to indignant, then to angry.
"Nathal, that man, he's a thief. We have to go to the city watch and tell them what happened" she said.
Nathal shook his head sadly. "Jenna, you don't understand. Xian isn't acting alone. There's nothing the watch can do to help."
"Not acting alone? Well we'll just find out who else is-"
"No Jenna," Nathal interrupted, "you still don't understand. I'm not paying Xian, I'm paying the Shadowmasters. Xian is just an agent. I don't even know how many members there are or how it's structured, let alone who they are. What I do know is they control Telflam. All of the shops in this area of the city pay monthly dues, it's just easier, and safer, than trying to change things."
"But can't we at least try? If we go to the watch they might be able to pick up Xian and find out who's in charge of the whole organization. They might be able-"
"No!" Nathal interrupted again. "Jenna, think for a moment. Suppose they have as agent in the watch. What do you think they'll do to us if we, if you, start causing problems? Do I look like a fighter?" He gestured at his squat frame. "I practically sweat reading about physical exertion. I beg you Jenna, for my sake, leave this be."
Not able to counter Nathal's reasoning but still unwilling to forego justice, Jenna stared at Nathal for several long moments before slowly nodding her head. "Alright Nathal, if that's what you want, I'll not do anything."
Visibly relieved, Nathal nodded. "Praise the lady Deneir" he breathed. "Now that that's settled, let's get this place cleaned up a little shall we?" He waved his hand toward the mess on the counter that Jenna had fallen into when Xian slapped her. "The different quality sheets of paper are all jumbled together, and that ink bottle looks as if it's near to toppling off the edge."
Nathal continued to prattle on about the store, eager to change the subject. He had met Jenna while she was looking for work about three months before, and in that time he had come to regard her almost as family. Although he spent many evenings with his brother's family, he had no wife or child of his own. And despite Jenna's unwillingness to speak of her past, Nathal had deduced that she had left home reluctantly, if not entirely against her will. She also gave him the impression that she was trying to hide a profound sadness, and her icy treatment of the young men who came into the shop gave him some idea why. Occasionally, when she first began working for him, Nathal could hear her muffled sobs from the hallway outside of her room. Nathal wasn't looking for a ward, but Jenna's honesty and passion was a welcome respite from the shadowy politics and self-interested cynicism that was the norm in Telflam.
.... There is more of this story ...