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Me Upon My Pony On My Boat

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The office is small and neat and cosy. It's pleasantly dim, the slight but unobtrusive light giving the block a warm, red-brown smell, and the only thing that reeks of criminal activity is the packet of dried Besgovin clickworms resting heavy and accusing on the desk, placed there and sealed inside an airtight bag after a scant ten minutes of diligent rummaging unearthed them in a drawer an hour earlier. In a drawer! Like anybody keeps clickworms in their desk drawer! Besgovin clickworms, when correctly dried out, are a powerful and highly illegal narcotic, and have been the subject of some controversy ever since an Archeradicator General was caught making important military decisions while under the influence. Little-inspected mining outpost or not, only an idiot would keep clickworms in their grubdamn office drawer.

Magister Redglare does not think that Overseer Darkhorn, the office's owner, is an idiot.

Darkhorn is a small, stout, serious troll with one burnt and blackened horn that has presumably lent her her the latter half of her extremely practical and unimaginative name, and she has been watching from the door, wringing her hands, ever since Redglare called her back here. She's in charge of this asteroid belt, and she's a greenblood, and Redglare doesn't have to be a seasoned Legislacerator to figure out that that's the answer to this investigation right here.

"Overseer Darkhorn!" she says, picking up the baggie between finger and thumb. Darkhorn follows the bag with anxious eyes. "Do you recognise this bag?"

"No," she says, "No, I swear those aren't mine."

She's worried, certainly, but she doesn't smell guilty at all. She's probably not even doing anything else worthy of punishment. She's just a determined midblood who's secured success for herself through hard work and ruthless cunning. The picture of the Alternian Dream.

"No. They're not, are they," says Redglare.

"Oh god, please, I – " Darkhorn stares at her. "What?"

"I'm not stupid. But somebody must think I am." She sets the bag down on the desk, and leans forward, one hand on her cane. "You're a good manager, right?" She waits. Darkhorn watches her, nervously, as if she's worried about walking into a trap – but eventually, tentatively, she nods. Redglare nods, too, smiling a little. "You work hard!" she says. "I bet this is a tough job. I can understand why somebody in your position might need a little something to help her along –" Darkhorn opens her mouth to protest, but Redglare holds up a hand to stop her. "I can understand why somebody with a low opinion of the strong arm of the law would expect somebody like me to assume that you did... But your records are clean. Your entire operation is clean. This is literally the only item of evidence I've found – Overseer, your employees respect you. If they lost you, the new boss would probably be a lot worse. Why would a lowly administrative worker risk occupational upheaval just to make sure you weren't indulging in the occasional pinch of worms?"

She pauses for effect, but has to cut it short when she notices Darkhorn looking like she thinks she's expected to reply again. Some people have no sense of dramatic timing at all. "The answer," she says, "is that, of course, he wouldn't – unless he was being bribed. You run a lucrative business out here, Overseer! I expect there are a lot of influential highbloods in this sector who'd love to get their prongs on a delicious nugget of fresh, juicy capital like this asteroid belt and put a greenblood in her place all at once – perhaps an act of revenge, but your life isn't exciting enough for something like that, is it? Either way, my investerrogations have turned up exactly nothing to suggest that this," she points to the bag, "is anything but sabotage."

Redglare taps her fingers against her knuckles, breathing evenly and taking in the Overseer's dusty, slightly bewildered scent. "So the only question left," she says, "is by whom? Who was lazy enough to think that dumping a bag of worms in your drawer would be enough to fool a Legislacerator?" She raises her eyebrows. "Overseer, can you give me any names?"

The Overseer is still staring, as if she can't quite bring herself to be relieved yet. "I –" She stops, and casts a nervous glance towards the door. "No," she says. "No. Sorry."

Redglare can think of several, off the top of her head, and it's obvious that Darkhorn has some idea, too. But she's not at all surprised. She knows what Darkhorn must be thinking – pointing fingers would only make her a target. She thinks, for a moment, of tying the greenblood to her office chair and wringing an answer out of her, but she knows as well as Darkhorn does that there's no point.

She straightens up and looks around the room one last time with a familiar resignation. At last, she nods. "All right," she says. "The bureaucracy drones will be here tomorrow for you to sign a couple of things, and then you can get on with your extremely profitable mining business, and – "

"Wait," Darkhorn says. "You mean you aren't going to ..."

Redglare raises her eyebrows. "You are innocent, aren't you?"

"I – yes! You just said so yourself, but – "

"Sh!" says Redglare. The end of her cane swings up, stops barely an inch from the edge of Darkhorn's nose, and the Overseer abruptly shuts up. "You're innocent. Some filthy criminal planted these in your desk and bribed one of your underlings to file an accusation. And I think you do know who it is, who's been that bit too interested in your operation, but, since you won't tell me, it's probably somebody who owns their own third-sector solar system – someone who a lowly Legislacerator like me would not be able to arrest without backup, and someone too influential for anybody to be willing to provide that backup – and so I think it would be best for all of us if I took you at your word when you said you don't know."

Darkhorn nods slowly, cautiously, as if the cane in front of her face is a loaded weapon. Redglare lowers it, and smiles a thin, humourless smile.

"Good!" she says, captchaloguing the clickworms. "Thank you for your time, Overseer."

 

*

 

On the shuttle back to her own office, Redglare thinks about the grateful look on Overseer Darkhorn's face to try to make herself feel better. It doesn't really work. A legislacerator's duty isn't to protect the innocent, it's to punish the guilty, and the guilty party here is going to go unpunished. She's going to have to mark this down as 'investigation inconclusive' – 'sabotage likely', yes, but nobody cares about what your conclusion was if nobody's getting punished for it. It's the 'inconclusive' that counts, and that'll be the seventh time, another black mark on her record because the law is too weak to go after the criminals who really deserve it.

Whichever troll planted the narcotics obviously expected Redglare to arrest the Overseer for her own sake. The trial would have been brief and merciless; no one would question her ruling. She would have earned the favour of a powerful blueblood, and be able to file this case as closed. It would be simple; neat. It happens, she is sure of it, every night. But she refuses to sell out justice – and a fat lot of good it is doing her.

It's times like this that she regrets taking her ancestor's name. She wanted to bring the name greatness where the original Redglare failed, and she's not doing it. Yes, she sometimes gets the kind of serious, high-stakes cases she always dreamed of as a child on Alternia, but they're few and far between. Redglare the First might have died without making it past Neophyte, but she also died after a life of fucking around on an enormous dragon, hunting pirates. Her descendant spends most of her time doing paperwork and arguing with people – which, certainly, is what she signed up for! The troll definition of arguing with people near invariably involves a respectable amount of maiming. But it is low-key beaurocratic maiming, and while she is very, very good at it, Redglare can't help but feel like she's doing her ancestor a disservice.

The original Redglare, she thinks, would have forced a name out of Darkhorn, shuttled over to the bastard's private penthive planet, parked her mighty draconic steed on their luxury lawnring, set up a trial in their living room and executed them right there. She probably wouldn't have gotten away with it, but at least she would have tried.

She sighs, propping her cane against its stand by the door of her office, and slouches into her desk chair. Both the chair and desk are fetchingly upholstered in the blood-dyed skins of executed criminals, complementing – at least in her opinion – the colourful pictures that she has hung up on the walls. They are all of dragons, the kitschily majestic variety that clasp nonspecific orbs in their mighty talons for no particular reason and gaze out over dramatic landscapes with their noble heads held high. They are great. She has accumulated dozens of prints and several sloppily-made resin statues, including a particularly gaudy snowglobe.

By comparison, the paperwork on her desk – the forms she transferred over on her way back already printed out and awaiting her signature – is supremely uninviting in its drab monochrome.

She drops her head against the desk, inhaling the neat lines of licorice print. Accused party innocent, sabotage likely, no means of tracing instigator – investigation inconclusive. She flips to the last page and signs it without raising her head – as if, she thinks, she's scared of changing her mind. As if she'd really let an arrogant highblood use the law as his personal assassin. Never! Someone else will let him, sooner or later, she knows that. Her protest is essentially futile, and all she's really achieving is making herself look like a sloppy investigator. Darkhorn will be executed, and the bluebloods will get what they want.

But it won't be on Redglare's watch.

Sometimes, she thinks as she gathers up the paperwork and leaves her personal office to go and file it, she feels like it's all a bit pointless. But it's the principle of the thing. Someone has to uphold the law.

She just wishes she was doing a better job of it.

"Redglare!"

She emerges gratefully from her thoughts to find she's being accosted by her secretary, a younger tealblood with a nice set of fangs that are presumably making one or two other trolls either very happy or very enraged. Administ Tipstock is a decent, earnest troll, with very little of the entitled resentment you sometimes get in people who are having to work as the subordinates of trolls who aren't their blood superiors.

"It's a new assignment," he says, handing her a piece of paper. "Some sort of smuggling problem in the Bothaine system –"

"Where the hell is Bothaine?" says Redglare, snatching the paper off him and frowning at it.

"Er, it's in the fifth sector –"

"The fifth sector?" Redglare raises her eyebrows and gives the assignment a good hard sniff. "Urgh, seriously? Is this a joke?"

He shrugs apologetically. "I guess you were the only one available ..."

"The only one available? Ha! More like the only one with a terrible enough record to be worth sending me out to solve a shitty dispute on a border planet." She snaps her teeth irritably. "I'm better than this, they know I am. This is a waste of everybody's time."

Tipstock sighs. "Maybe if you made more arrests –"

"My duty's to the law, Administ."

He doesn't look convinced in the least. He does look sympathetic, though, which is irritating. "Well, I know you're a great Legislacerator," he says. "You're wasting your skills, you could do a lot more if you just, you know ..."

Redglare sighs. "Look, you are a great kid, but I do not need your pity." He has the decency to smell a little cowed, the faint minty scent of his blush lingering in the air between them. "I know what I am doing, Tipstock! If they want to waste my time on this kind of thing then it's their loss." She folds the assignment neatly in two, and gives him a Look. It is very easy to stare people down when you're not actually using your eyes; he doesn't really know where to look, and after a moment or two he nods in resignation.

"If you say so, boss."

"I do say so," she says, and presses the documents into his hands before he can say anything else. "Be a good boy and go file this for me."

Honestly she thinks he might be right. Honestly, she doesn't really know what she is doing. But when it comes down to it she isn't dedicated to improving her own position, she is dedicated to Justice – and besides, she tells herself, the last thing she wants to do is lead on a subordinate with an awkward pale crush. She likes Tipstock well enough, but definitely not like that.

She makes Tipstock get her a cup of coffee, and busies herself for the next couple of hours researching the Bothaine system. It's not really on the border, but it's well into the fifth sector all the same, closer to the edges of the Empire's reaches than it is to anything else. Why they want a Legislacerator out there is beyond her – planets that far out are usually self-governing, as good as lawless, and most of the trolls there like it that way. Voyaging out there from actual civilisation takes a good couple of perigees, at least, and nobody wants to waste their time trying to keep order in places where the criminals can just hop out into unoccupied space as soon as they catch a whiff of the strong arm of the law.

It turns out the Bothaine system has three colonised planets, though, where most fifth-sector systems only have one, which probably has something to do with it. They're all owned by the same cerulean-blooded ex-Threshecutioner, who is obviously proud enough not to stand for criminal behaviour in her system, but not so proud she won't get someone else's help with it. Redglare imagines a grizzled and slightly out of touch veteran with an inflated opinion of herself and her planets, who's decided to call a Legislacerator in to put the fear of Real Legal Ramifications into the people she governs. It's the kind of thing you get in the fourth sector all the time, but normally nobody out in the fifth sector can be bothered.

It's still part of the Empire's jurisdiction, though. Waste of time or not, it is a Legislacerator's duty to investigate and persecute.

Redglare saves a few bookmarks onto her maggotdrive and leaves early to pack. She has a long trip ahead of her.

 

*

 

Two nights later, Redglare is boarding the HCS Sunsplitter, an Odonate-class psionically powered bioship with a crew of several dozen trolls, where she will be spending the next two perigees hitching a ride to the Bothaine system. It has moderate firepower, good defenses, and, from what Redglare has heard, particularly impressive speed. She hears it again within minutes of boarding, because Captain Scimitar Tusknife, a tall blueblood with sturdy backwards-pointing horns and a lower set of fangs as appealingly pronounced as her name boasts, is very proud of her ship.

"We could make it in much less time than this if we needed to," she's saying as she shows Redglare on board, "but it puts a lot of strain on the Helmsman over such a long distance. Couldn't make these cargo voyages to the fifth sector if we weren't fast as hell, though – it's crawling with pirates out there. And we can outrun the lot of 'em." She pats the wall with great pride, as though whatever yellowblood's wired into the engineblock will be able to feel it – they might well do, for all Redglare can tell. She doesn't know much about starships. "Almost as fast as the Flagship, if you ask me, but of course you didn't hear me say that." Tusknife's smile has just enough fang to make it clear that if Redglare did hear her utter that bit of minor sedition, she will be shoved out of an airlock at the earliest available opportunity.

Ah, Redglare thinks, and smiles back, not quite reassuringly. "Of course not," she says. "We are all law-abiding subjects of Her Imperious Condecension's eternal disdain here!"

Tusknife doesn't let her see an awful lot of the ship, although by the time she's been shown where the nutritionblock and the recreational areas are, told which zones she's not permitted to enter, and shown to her respiteblock, she's been told enough about the Sunsplitter to waste a sizable amount of space in her brain pan. Apparently Tusknife's been Captain for nearly four sweeps, since the helmsman was first plugged in, and although it's certainly not the first starship she's captained, it seems to be her favourite. She boasts excessively, but her enthusiasm is earnest, and Redglare finds herself liking her in spite of herself, even though she is clearly the kind of space captain who believes the only law on her ship is her law and has no qualms with summarily dealing with any trolls, Legislacerators or otherwise, think it's their business to report to her superiors or undermine her authority.

This voyage, she thinks, might not be so terribly dull as she has been fearing.

She's left to her own devices once she's been shown to her respiteblock. This would, she thinks, be a decent opportunity to take her own look round, but the respiteblock is warm and cosy, and she's spent a long night travelling already, so instead she sets about ejecting her possessions from her Sylladex. After she's pinned up a couple of majestic orbclutching dragons and laid out her favourite garish rug, she heaps a selection of dogeared, tonguelathed lawbooks about the block, and lets herself sink into them.

She is just thinking that a bit of a doze might be in order after hours spent scurrying up and down a crowded spaceport, when a voice rings over the intercom, tinny and incredulous and a little bit furtive.

"Terezi?"