The Weasel and the Magpies
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Dear Archivist,

Of late some of our companions have acquired--through entirely legitimate means!--a collection of books, artifacts, and botanical samples that the Library may find interesting. Normally our kind do not part with any items from our collections, but these don't hold our fancy (most are ancient Cimuvi potsherds, for goodness sake). We believe they will be of great interest to you, though.

In return we would ask for some compensation. Firstly, several of our members have overdue books. We have returned these books, undamaged, along with this letter. In exchange for the items, you will declare their debts to the Library void and cease molesting them.

Secondly, we want complete copies of Longjourney's journals and all your documentation on the City of Seaglass and Ctethuss.

Thirdly, for everything but the potsherds (which we are trading for the first two points), we would like to trade in kind, choosing certain items the Library is deaccessioning. Obviously, we would prefer anything particularly unique and appealing. If the Library does not bring anything of interest, we reserve the right to dispose of our unwanted items another way.

If you are interested, please send an emissary to the Bonepicker's Lodge in Truxi. We will be staying there for the next few moonspans.

Please see the included list for items we are offering.

— Messrs. Pica and Cissa

The wallpaper was an ugly shade of fuchsia that clashed glaringly with the dozens of artifacts mounted to it. Ancient swords and spears. Old pottery. An antique oceanfire torpedo, the blazing heart visible through its sapphire glass midsection. A breastplate decorated with opal gems whose bands of color moved before his eyes. The statue of some goose-like alien, which was so large he could only get a good look at by flying close to the ceiling. Despite himself, Echo couldn't help but admit it was pretty, at least if you could ignore the wallpaper. It was also almost all stolen.

He'd seen worse. The Magpies only pried their loot from your cold, dead hands if you were a few centuries gone.

The violet sky of Truxi was visible through the skylight in the center of the foyer, and a dozen moons traveled far too quickly across it. Sometimes they passed in front of clouds. The Way here had been unpleasant, but at least the other members of his cell had been with him. Now they weren't, at least in flesh. The invitation was for one emissary, and as the one whose body language was hard to read for humanoids he'd been the natural choice.

Echo's head turned as a positively cadaverous humanoid with orange-tinted skin and enormous ebon eyes approached him. The figure cleared their throat. "They're ready to see you," they said. "If you'll follow me, sir."

"Don't call me sir," he said, dropping down to what would be eye level for humanoids and floating after… "What's your name?"

"Abaxi." Abaxi led him down a hallway decorated with more things mounted to the wall, but this time Echo wasn't paying very close attention to what they were. "In here," they said once they'd led him to an open doorway. Echo drifted through, looking about. Two sharply dressed humans, a wooden crate on the floor next to them, and a notebook on the antique wooden table. Both smelled like sweat, woodsmoke, vinegar, beef, and onions—a result of their breakfast, perhaps.

"Pica and Cissa, I suppose?" Echo asked dryly. There was no way those were their real names, but if that was what they were going by he would entertain it. The one to the right bobbed his head without missing a beat, and Echo put them a notch up in his estimation of their competence. Even for many Wanderers, a floating metal-clawed weasel was still surprising.

"That's us."

"I'm going to need to see the potsherds before I agree to anything else. They're in the crate?"

"Yes, they are." Echo drifted over and wiggled a scythe-like claw into the gap between the lid and rim of the crate, then started prying. After a few moments of straining to keep their position steady, they managed to get the top off. The scent of musty paper and charcoal immediately filled the air. He peered inside. There were objects neatly packed in brown paper. Carefully Echo removed one and unwrapped it, revealing a potsherd. Of course, Echo knew little about Cimuvi potsherds—but he didn't need to. He wriggled his tongue, dislodging the little chitin ampule adhered to the roof of his mouth and then crushing it against his teeth. A foul bitter taste seeped out, but Echo had done this before; he didn't gag.

Torbjørg and Marcus' dreamscape faded in around him. There was a brief moment where Echo saw both the meeting room and the inn the rest of his cell was staying at before Torbjørg exerted her will and made the dreamscape match what she was getting from his senses. It wasn't quite perfect but it was much less distracting. He sent a brief message, in intent not words. Was this genuine? And then he felt Marcus' magic reaching out of him, scanning over the potsherd. It was, and Echo could feel Marcus' realization. But he'd have to look over the rest of the potsherds to be sure.

Looking over the potsherds took nearly an hour, but Echo didn't dare get sloppy. If he got incompetent and offered the Librarians counterfeit goods there'd be consequences for him… and for the Hand as a whole. Despite all that the Hand tried to do for the Library--attacking the Bookburners, acting as emissaries where the Librarians could not go, gathering material for their collection, helping keep the Ways safe--their welcome always felt a little tenuous. He didn't think the Magpies would be that stupid because there'd be consequences for them as well, and probably far more fatal ones. But you never knew with Magpies. Stealing from the Library wasn't very clever either and they'd done it before.

He didn't think that the Magpies realized what he'd done. Not that they were likely to care very much, but he'd rather keep them unaware just in case it provided an additional edge during negotiations. Marcus knew things Echo did not—and sometimes Echo had a hard time with humans' tells as well, just as they did with his.

"They check out," Echo said as he packed away the last potsherd and turned to Cissa and Pica. "You can consider your offer accepted. Your kind's transgressions against the Library will be forgiven once these are inside its walls. No longer will they be hunted--but the Ways will remain closed to them."

Pica grimaced, but didn't dispute the judgment. "It'll work. The books?" In response, Echo took out a scroll and laid it out on the table. It was covered with illustrations of jewelry, of coins, of elegant sculptures, of books. Each had sigils below them. Quickly he tapped the sigils beneath the books, and the drawings turned to real books, neatly arranged in a stack.

"I have them right here."

Cissa leaned forward slightly. Awareness came from Torbjørg that he was considering whether or not he could steal the scroll… which was welcome information, because Echo's first thought had been that Cissa was trying to smell them. He clicked his claws against each other, eyeing Cissa, but didn't say anything. The man leaned back, and Pica gave them a dirty look after taking the books.

"This is what the Library is offering?" Naked greed showed in Cissa's voice.

"Depending on what you offer them." Echo settled down on the edge of the scroll. "Let's see that notebook. I'd like to refresh my memory." A lie, but one that would give his cellmates time to see what interested the Magpies the most. They'd be too interested in shiny things to tell that Echo was watching them. "We'll give you the necklaces from the Glass Age in exchange for the elya-leaf manuscripts," he said after about a minute.

Cissa snorted. "Certainly not. Half of them clash terribly. Pink and green together, really? Wouldn't look nice at all."

"We're having this negotiation in a place with bright fuchsia wallpaper."

"The yxighe like it. Trust me, we didn't pick it. We'll give you the manuscripts for the Aropan chains." He looked over at Pica. "I want the green ones." Surprise flowed over the connection, and it wasn't just from Echo's partners. Echo knew well that those were some of the least valuable items the Library was offering.

"Fine. Done."

"I really thought that would be more difficult," Echo said once they were back at the inn. Despite knowing better he felt more on edge here. There were too many smells and not enough of his own scent. He'd mostly grown used to the latter ever since having to flee the Bookburners but staying somewhere with strange predator scents was always the worst on his nerves. At least his cellmates knew not to ask him why he was hanging near the ceiling. The drugs had left his system, though he still felt faintly out of it. Torbjørg and Marcus were out of their trance state. Rachel, their point of contact with the Serpent's Nest, had joined them.

"I suppose they really are just that shallow," Marcus said. Rachel snorted.

"Maybe, but I'm worried about this. Most of the other groups which do tasks for the Library aren't active in the same spheres we are. The Magpies could become an exception." Echo's fur bristled.

"Only a fool would trust them," he pointed out.

"You say that now. If they decide that the Library makes for a good trading partner maybe none of us will be saying it in a few years. Maybe the Ways will be open to them, and the Library won't even need an emissary because they'll do this in the Library." Objections died in Echo's muzzle. Rachel was right, and he couldn't deny it.

"We didn't come out ahead in this deal, did we?" Torbjørg asked.

"That'll depend on how often this happens."

"I don't think the Magpies are smart and self-controlled enough to become a good partner for the Library," Marcus pointed out.

"We should keep an eye on them going forward," Echo said. "Not to interfere in their dealings, but to pre-empt them. They're going after something the Library really wants? We try to get it first. Leave enough pretty things to keep them entertained and they won't care even if they figure it out. And maybe we can get a few of them to join us."

"I'll bring it up to the Nest."

The conversation turned to other, less important things. But Echo found his attention fading. The political implications of this could be thought about more later. For the moment, they'd done the Library a favor.

It'd have to be enough.

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