The Case of the Captured Caches Continues

The Neen are an underwater people created as part of an ongoing, collaborative worldbuilding project.  Their stories pepper the blog and until I organize them properly, you can use the Neen tag to find more.  The following continues a mystery surrounding some lost treasure; part one is right here.

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AN ESPECIALLY SOMBRE EPISODE

::Good evening, listeners, and welcome to an unusually sombre episode of Neen News Now!.  I know many of you expected that Zdravia’s war declaration would be the worst news we’d hear in a while, but unfortunately that is not the case.

As many in Niïlna have doubtlessly heard, we in Baädaka have been under attack by thieves.  Yes – have been – though it’s only become public knowledge now that Niïlna’s recently-appointed chieftain Unäna has suffered personally at the hands of the so-called ’Delvers’.  From what we’ve learned so far, wealthy Neen have been the targets of these thieves for years, and many have had entire caches emptied – seemingly overnight.

You heard right: entire caches.

Worse yet – if that’s even possible – our chieftains have been covering up the crimes!  It’s been nearly a decade since the first attacks occurred in Paämu, Nidanidi and elsewhere in The Toes, and while Baädaka’s elite – our rich and our ruling – have been warned of the danger and have had the opportunity to take action, the rest of us have been left in the dark to await a fate worse than death.::

::Gadad, do stop being dramatic and get on with the report.::

::If you’d been on scene with me, Bini, you’d know I’m not being ‘dramatic’.  I personally witnessed the aftermath of the most recent take, and it was nothing short of devastation: not a single coin, hairpin or bauble was left behind in Unäna’s home.  The chieftain, who recently took over for Ebede, has made herself quite unavailable for comment.  From what information we have gathered, it’s clear that while this investigation has been going on for years, the trail was cold until just recently, and still no one has any idea where the treasure’s being stored or spent.  Estimates put the treasure toll at approximately fifty-seven major caches.  Fifty-seven – listeners – that’s enough to make Tsiltung one’s own private island; enough to subsidize a thousand more monoliths for Mad Alwin Augeneye.  The only clue–::

::Gadad?::

::I’m not even exaggerating, Bini, just – ah – listeners, it looks like we have a special guest tonight: Podi of the Salt has just arrived outside my booth.  Presumably, she’ll be telling us not to panic.::

AS MANY TREASURES AS TEARS IN THE OCEAN

The Neen sing songs of Lady Lazali, who left the sea for a landbound lover.  Their affair was a wild and passionate one, and inspired many songs, but the most famous tale is of Lazali’s forsakenness.  So heartbroken was she over her lover’s betrayal that she returned to the ocean, where the water would hide her sadness.  For the rest of her life, Lazali was never seen to shed a tear, and it is because of her that it is said that Neen don’t cry.  It is because of her that the Neen have developed a vocabulary of gestures to identify the nuances of their pain – and it was every last one of these gestures that Unäna used upon returning home.

It was empty.  Not abandoned, not forgotten – but stripped utterly bare.  Gutted.  As was Unäna.  The stony circular portal of her home was still there – still surrounded, like a glittering doily, by an intricate mosaic of nacre shards – but everything beyond had been taken.  The music-boxes and ornate cutlery she’d salvaged herself from the scuttled Sea Kite; the wall-hangings she’d painstakingly crafted from countless foreign coins and ingots; her few silken articles of clothing, her combs and jewelry, her works of art, her glass figurines and scarred keys and colourful crowns – all gone.  The walls were ugly now, cracked, crumbled and stained with algae; her furnishings nothing but waterlogged wood and mouldy cushions, stripped of their decorative gems and metals like rotting gums without their teeth.  A meaningless glyph, scratched into the wall by her assailants, was the only decoration left.

Unäna’s tail flicked.  Her face twisted in anguish, her shoulders tightened, but her hands could not be stilled: The Bee, The Headache, The Heart.  She wrapped her arms around her body – sucked in water – but it felt like pressing syrup through her gills.  She sobbed; she screamed, and finally she whirled in the water, her purple hair like a maelstrom.

::Who did this,:: she threatened more than asked, climbing out through the portal like a slick, slimy beast from its cave.  The substantial crowd drew back in all directions, forming a sphere of staring eyes and leaving only a few people close enough to feel the electric pulse of Unäna’s fury: two detectives; an Amphin – Tenek, the consulting juror – and the friends she’d been with upon receiving the news.  When none of the detectives replied, she rolled her arms and shrieked, ::WHO DID THIS?::

::We’re – ah – still working on it, chieftain,:: stammered the younger detective – a mere apprentice, and entirely unprepared for the boil Unäna’s wrath.  His muscles visibly tightened as he entered the sphere of her irai.  ::Unfortunately, the – uh – investigation is ongoing, and it would be best if we could complete our work without distraction.  If you could accompany Yëde to–::

::This is my home,:: Unäna snarled.  ::I’m not about to accompany anyone anywhere.::

She looked to her friends – to Löolë, whose usually-annoying stoicism had been replaced by an even more annoying subtle pity; to Anaka, the Amphin, who couldn’t possibly understand the loss of one’s silly “trinkets”; to Podi – Podi – who was at fault for the situation in its entirety.

::You,:: Unäna growled, and she darted through the water so quickly that her onlookers gasped and drew back again – except for Podi.  Instead, the heavily-tattooed military chieftain removed her glasses, folded them and hooked them onto one of her necklaces, all while Unäna was raging at her.  ::You were meant to find them, Podi!  I thought you were tracking them – these so-called Delvers?!  I thought you were going to stop them?  I thought you might actually do something with Tidëa’s title but instead you’ve been–::

::Do not forget yourself, Unäna.::

::Forget myself?! Eat sand, Lost One!!  What is left to remember?!:: Unäna cried, gesturing wildly back at her home – at what had been her home – her story – her life.  ::This is all your fault! You told us you’d find them – told us they would never dare – never manage – to do this in Niïlna – to do this – to – me..!::

She punctuated her few final words with strikes at Podi’s face and chest, but she was exhausted from heartbreak and from the careless expenditure of her irai, and her efforts had the effectiveness of a child’s tantrum.  Podi silently wrapped her in a hug, pinning Unäna’s arms to her side, so that the only thing she could do was wail and hopelessly flick her tail.  Podi talked over her.

::Everyone who isn’t working this case, get out of here,:: she commanded, barely louder than Unäna’s agonized moans.  ::Yëde, Pan, Tenek – I’ll expect your report.  Löolë, Anaka – summon what chieftains you can to the private hall – I’ll meet you there.  Nätila… help me get Unäna to one of her other caches before she destroys my ears.::

PLANS & PRIORITIES

::Gadad’s going to be all fucking over this.::

Meetings in the private aerated hall had become worryingly common, and though they were often unscheduled and unhappy, they were well-attended, with chieftains in varying degrees of soaking wet depending on their order of arrival.  This time, several police officers and military personnel were in attendance, too, though none were under heavier fire than Podi, who bore the barrage of questions, accusations and disappointment as carefully as she’d borne Unäna’s teeth and nails.  Still, she wasn’t particularly known for her restraint, and as the hubbub reached its peak, she dug her nails into the table.

::–elsewhere, but not here, in the capital, right under our–::

::–nominated for your position based on the expectation that you would do something about–::

::–expect any Neen of the Salt to understand the gravity–::

Podi slammed her palms against the table.

::Everyone sit and shut up,:: she said in the brief silence, getting to her feet as the other chieftains found chairs.  The handful of police waited awkwardly against the wall behind her, while the military personnel at her sides were careful to keep still and quiet.  Podi let out a breath that was half sigh, half growl.  ::By now you all know what happened at chieftain Unäna’s residence; as I’m sure this unfortunate event will be the talk of the city the moment we leave this room, I’ll spare you the details.  What I need from you now is your–::

::From us?!:: said a chieftain from the other end of the table.  ::If I’m not mistaken, you were meant to put a stop to these monsters?::

There was a rumble of assent around the table; Podi sneered and rolled her arms.

::You know we’ve been trying.  You know about our sweeps of the land south of Lit Lake – you know, likewise, that we’ve found nothing.  You also know that war has been declared on Myrmidonia, and that most of my people have been redirected to guard our borders or to inspect cargo on its way through the canal.  You’ll forgive me if theft is not our top priority right now.::

The commotion started up again, and this time Podi only waited for it to end rather than calling for silence.

::Unäna… is my personal friend.  What happened to her is terrible, and I will bring to justice whoever is responsible.  But in this moment, what I need is for you – and for your constituents – not to panic.  I repeat: there is a war going on – people are going to die – and I know that each of us wants to help in any way that we can.  We can’t do that if we lose our heads.::

::So – what – we just allow this to keep happening in favour of cleaning up after the landwalkers’ war?:: said Kolu’s chieftain.  ::Do you know of any other nation that would allow a murder spree to simply carry on in their–?::

::I didn’t say we would let it carry on,:: Podi said. ::…and perhaps more importantly: this isn’t murder.::

The table exploded.  Chieftains stood; chairs were toppled.  For the second time that day, Podi removed and folded her glasses, and waited for the noise to end.  In the commotion, a secretary hastily entered the room, crept to Löolë’s shoulder and led him away. He ducked into the hall and shut the door.  His secretary, Kutule, wasn’t the only one there, but she was the only one who didn’t look guilty about it: five other assistants were loitering in the hall – probably eavesdropping.  Kutule bowed-and-fluffed; the other assistants made like they had something to do, and wandered off.

::Chieftain Löolë, I’m very sorry to disturb you, but we’ve received a telegram from the Kogmother XIII of Myrmidonia.  She wants to meet with the Tentacanal contractees.  She says… Spaliopolis has been attacked.::

::…fuck.::

::Sir?::

::Does Karero know yet?::

::Most of Chieftain Podi’s assistants are in that meeting, sir, and those who aren’t are only missing it because they’re already too busy,:: Kutule said, wincing and touching her curls.  ::…do you have a reply?::

::…suggest to her that we meet at the Gatehouse; that should be neutral enough for everyone, and at the very least we won’t risk any attacks there from Zdravia.  Tell me when you have confirmation.  I’ll speak with Podi.::

He turned to take the doorhandle, but Kutule grabbed his arm.  She let go just as quickly.

::Wait – ah – sorry, Chieftain, but… are you sure?  I mean, it might be dangerous?  You’ll take someone with you, right?::

::Do you have a suggestion?:: Löolë said, and his assistant became strangely flustered.

::What?  No – I didn’t mean – I just thought – for security..?::

::Of course,:: Löolë said.  ::I’ll take Podi.::

Kutule looked only halfway appeased by that, but she let him go anyway, and he stepped back into the meeting room.  Things had quieted down, which meant that he drew everyone’s attention upon closing the door.  The table was a stew of emotion: Podi was equal parts stressed and murderous; Läupa and Jütä bore nearly-identical expressions of disgust and disappointment; Motë’s chieftain was tapping his fingers on the table in barely-contained terror, while Roödi’s had her fingers over her eyes, and was shaking her head slightly.

Into the silence Läupa said, ::This has been happening in Paämu for nearly a decade; many of the lake Neen have known about it for years, and we are afraid.  I myself have struggled with whether or not to visit my secondary caches, fearful to lead anyone there – fearful of finding everything already taken.  When word reaches the city – the nation – as a whole, there will be mass hysteria.  How can the handful of us do anything about that?  How can we expect to help anyone else when we fear for our own security?::

::Our efforts to help those misplaced or injured by the war must take priority,:: Podi said, but Läupa shook her head.

::Say we agree – and I think most of us do – how can we convince the populace?  Most Neen have heard only stories of Myrmidonia – and rarely are they good ones – so convincing anyone that Myrmidonia’s plight – even Zdravia’s – should take priority over our own caches is going to be next to impossible.  You must understand, Podi, that you place a much different value – or lack thereof – on treasure than most Neen.::

::Läupa’s right,:: Löolë said, and earned himself a scowl from one of Podi’s assistants.

::Of course you’d agree with her – your wealth is all you have,:: he said, and before anyone else could jump in – to his defense or otherwise – Löolë drew a little circle in the air.

::We need to put this to rest,:: he said.  ::Let’s offer a reward.::

::To… the… thieves?:: Läupa said, narrowing her eyes, and Löolë nodded.

::To anyone with information.  It will give civilians something proactive to focus on, and perhaps even give incentive to one of our thieves to come forward.  If they’re after treasure… we’ll give it to them.::

::It would have to be a substantial reward considering that they can get away with whole caches,:: someone said, and there was a rumble of laughter.  ::Should we start asking for donations?::

::As our friend here has already helpfully mentioned, my holdings are… of considerable size,:: Löolë said.  ::I’m… sure I could stand to part with something.::

::A whole cache?:: Läupa said.

Löolë flinched, and his mechanical hand spasmed of its own accord.  Every eye in the room was upon him.  He grimaced; nodded.

::Yes.  But Podi should make the announcement, and I will need her help with something unrelated, as well.  As for the rest of you… …I’ve just learned that Zdravia has attacked.::

OUR LOOT IS NOT OUR LEGACY

::Podi of the Salt!  Welcome!  Sit!  …on the chair, please – that’ll leave your hands free to actually do something about this mess amIright?::

::Or to strangle you, Gadad; I should have killed you thirty years ago you gaudy piece of–::

::I see you have a statement prepared – adorable!  You know we don’t do that here, don’t you?::

::How about you let me say my piece, and then you can slander me?::

::Slander?  I don’t slander people on my station.::

::Is that so?  …suppose I should actually try listening sometime.::

::…Ah… …you… …don’t……..?::

::Good evening, listeners; this is Podi of the Salt, Elected Chieftain of Military Operations in Niïlna.  What Gadad has been spouting here – while dramatized – is true: thieves have been targeting wealthy Neen, and in the interest of avoiding unnecessary panic, your chieftains have been keeping the news quiet.::

::Unnecessary panic?  You did see what happened at–?::

::Since the news is out now, we would like to share with you what we know, in the hopes that some of you might come forward with more information – in exchange, of course, for a tremendous reward.  Before I get into the details, I would like to impress upon everyone that, while these crimes are terrible, this is not the time for paranoia or panic.  Do not mistrust your friends; do not hide; do not hoard.  This is a time to demonstrate to all of Aeras that we are not senseless creatures filled only with a lust for gold and glitter.  We are generous and we are proud, and we do not cower at threats.::

::Coming from you, Podi, you must understand how hollow that sounds?  Some of us have quite a bit more to lose – fortunes amassed over lifetimes – fortunes that are our legacies.::

::The fact that this is coming from me should speak to its truth.  It is well known that I was an outsider and I was poor – I am poor – but Niïlna is my home now, and you – even you, Gadad – are my family.  I am more than capable of carving a life for myself into any part of this world, but I stay in Baädaka because I learned, like all Neen learn, that living and working together makes us safer and stronger.  To isolate ourselves now is not the answer; we must band together to overcome this, and to lend help when we are needed elsewhere.  We cannot let the fear of loss drive us to foolishness: we Neen are more than our things; our loot is not our legacy.  Should we not be remembered for more than what we leave behind?::

::…who’s your speech writer, Lost One?::

::Let me get through my data, Gadad, and I’ll answer that question and more.::

::…very well.  Finish.  And then we can get on with the slander.::

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[Part 3 is here!]

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