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Whose Allegiance Is Ruled by Expedience

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There was a limit to how hidden any ninja village could actually be, even with the bulk of the active ninja out on missions at any given moment. It took a lot of resources to support that many soldiers, and even more to support all their support personnel. Grains and vegetables had to be grown and stored, animals raised and slaughtered, cloth woven, metals mined, waste removed, etc.

There was a lot of money in running a city on a constant, low-grade war footing, if you knew where to look and didn't mind the risk of invasion.

For those who didn't mind risk and who weren't encumbered by deep emotional ties to any one country, there was even better money in supplying missing-nin. Renouncing their political allegiances didn't let missing-nin renounce basic physical necessities, and Kuwa Natsume had rarely met a ninja who was willing to spend actual time and effort on practical logistics when they could subcontract the headaches out instead. The less of a pre-existing support structure they had, the more they were willing to pay to recreate it.

Twenty years of profits had let her buy and refurbish a very nice set of warehouses in her hometown of Asase: a quiet Fire Country harbor near the ruins of Uzushiogakure, popular with smugglers and missing-nin alike. In twenty more years? As long as she exercised some basic precautions, the sky was the limit, wasn't it.

The first trick was keeping the hidden villages from using her records to spy on her clients. Natsume managed that mostly via scrupulous compartmentalization: anything she and her staff didn't need to know, they carefully never learned, so there was no point questioning them for secrets they couldn't reveal. Her willingness to supply off-book missions for the hidden villages didn't hurt, either. Her company was far more useful as a neutral logistics resource than as a reluctant source of probably compromised information. (This didn't stop some ninja from following her staff to various dead-drops, but if her clients weren't alert to potential ambushes at inherent weak points, that wasn't Natsume's problem. Her contracts were explicit on that subject.)

The second trick, of course, was making sure her clients didn't start thinking of her as a threat instead of an asset. Again, compartmentalization helped. So did a track record of honesty and cost-effective results. She'd started small -- little things like food drops, clothing orders, finding convenient gaps in property claims where a hidden camp could go unnoticed -- and by now her reputation did a lot of the hard work for her. The remaining danger was the spice that kept her sharp.

And her latest potential client was certainly dangerous. Natsume had trained herself not to speculate on her clients' names, origins, or intentions, but she was sure this one could kill her in a breath if he wanted. She'd just have to make sure he never wanted to.

Natsume scanned the architectural plans that the missing-nin -- a tall man with paper-white skin, long black hair, and flashy earrings, probably attractive if you went for the sociopathic pretty-boy look -- had handed to her, sighed, and let the scrolled sheets roll back up with a rattling snap.

"Science labs aren't my thing, so I'll assume you know what you need on that front. The rest of it? That's a mess. You'll need a lot of water for a single base this size, let alone a whole series of them. Sound Country's a mess, but political disorganization won't stop farmers from poking around if you divert some streams; that's a nuisance I'm sure you'd prefer to avoid. If you release the used water to rejoin its original streams, you'll need good sewage treatment facilities or people will notice the contamination in the watershed; again, that leads to all kinds of inconvenience. And that's just the plumbing. I could go on about heating and ventilation, but we'd be here all day."

The missing-nin frowned, an expression conveyed more by the wave of frigid potential violence suddenly swamping Natsume's office than any tensing of his facial muscles. Natsume's pulse kicked up. Sweat prickled the edge of her hairline and the small of her back. Her breath caught and her knees wobbled. She didn't bother trying to hide any of that, but she didn't retreat or let her tongue loose, either. You had to let ninja make their little power plays, had to show you were scared -- missing-nin especially could get interested in people who seemed resistant to their skills -- but you couldn't actually knuckle under or you'd never get anywhere.

After a minute, the missing-nin smiled and tucked away his killing intent. "I believe I was correct to come to you, Kuwa-san. How soon can you present me a revised set of plans?"

Natsume took a deep breath and forced herself to speak evenly. "That depends on how much you're willing to pay to expedite the process. Overtime hours aren't any cheaper for architects and engineers than for ninja, and yours isn't the only construction contract on our plate."

The missing-nin named a price.

Face carefully blank, Natsume ran a quick set of mental calculations. "Four days, pay half now and the rest upon completion of the contract. And then you should review them in the same room as my team, to save time with the inevitable corrections and additions. Shall we say nine in the morning, five days from now?"

"We shall." The missing-nin stood from his chair in a swift, graceful motion. "I look forward to the fruits of your labor, Kuwa-san, as well as to your continuing discretion. If I'm sufficiently impressed, I may consider signing a supply contract as well as a building contract. We could do business for many years to come."

Natsume smiled, dryly. "So long as you keep yourself alive, I'm happy to keep taking your money. Five days, nine o'clock. Please knock on the door instead of sneaking in so my staff don't have to waste an hour resetting all our alarms and traps."

The missing-nin offered what had to be a deliberately off-putting smile before dissolving into a pile of writhing snakes, which then dissolved into smoke that filled the room from floor to the high warehouse-style rafters.

Natsume waited a minute to be sure her knees had stopped shaking. Then she stood, flung open her window, and leaned out into the sun-drenched afternoon. For a good five minutes she breathed the clean, salt-scented air, watched a ship's crew carefully load and stow the myriad irregular shapes of its cargo, and listened to the irritable scream of gulls and steady rush and slap of waves against the harbor breakwater. Asase, her beloved town, living and growing again, forging new economic lifelines across the continent to replace the ones shredded and drowned by Uzushio's destruction.

Eventually she turned back to the dim interior of her office and said in a conversational tone, "You don't need to spy on me. I'm not going to report your boss to hunter-nin or cheat him on his plans. I don't even know his name. If you'd like to contribute to the design process, though? That could save your boss some valuable time when he comes to review our work."

The office was silent. The nondescript money pouch on her desk offered no clues; it could have appeared at any time, via any number of tricks. Ninja liked their dramatic gestures.

Natsume shrugged. If she'd been talking to an empty room, nobody would ever know. If the missing-nin had left a spy, maybe an extra body would turn up in the project room sometime over the next few days. Or maybe not.

Either way, she had better things to do than fret about ninja paranoia. Storage scrolls didn't order themselves, to say nothing of the copper ore she needed to move from Sand Country to Sky Country, the salt she needed to move from Sky Country to Fire Country, the subcontractor she needed to find for a massive bandage order, the numerous small farms whose pre-optioned output she needed to keep tabs on, and so on and so forth.

Natsume gathered the scrolled plans from her desk, and walked out through her secretary's office. "New client," she said in response to the young woman's curious glance. "Clear my afternoon until, mmm, three o'clock. This one needs a bit of personal attention to make the pieces snap into place, and you can handle everything except client meetings by now. I'll be in the drafting room if you run into any documents official enough that a forged signature won't pass inspection."

Her secretary sat straighter in her chair, looking both terrified and flattered. Smart girl: time to see if she'd sink or swim. Natsume was betting on the latter, but if not, she could smother any fires before they grew too large.

In the meantime, she headed down the hall to the bare, industrial room her chief architect and her chief engineer had claimed for their shared office and workspace. A missing-nin with this much money to throw around, planning for a truly ridiculous number of followers -- almost like he was trying to set up his own village -- most likely meant one of the hidden villages was in crisis. It probably also meant another shake-up in Sound Country. But that wasn't Natsume's concern. All she needed to know was whether the man would honor a contract, and the weight of the pouch in her hand gave her a good feeling on that front.

Whistling to herself, Natsume knocked on the drafting room door.

Profit, here she came.