49: Wheels within wheels
I grew up in just such a conclave. My 'father', who was not really my father, was well respected in the community at large, and even better respected among those who plied their trades in the dark alleys and byways. He owned a small warehouse and appeared to make a small but honest income storing goods for various traders, whocame to our city to supply the local merchants with trade goods and take the local products away to stronger markets. What the community at large did not know was that under the warehouse floor a hidden storage area served much the same function, except that the goods stored there were only being shipped away because they were too recognizable to be sold locally...their rightful owners would no doubt object. Some of those goods my father and a small group of friends would acquire themselves, but most came from a larger group of friends who much preferred a little coin in their pockets to a house full of stolen goods.
This circle of friends expanded slowly, for obvious reasons, and in many cases a new friend would be added to the circle without the convenience of a formal introduction. When someone new arrived in town, having fled the authorities in their former home, they obviously couldn't just ask around to find a business like my father's, and if they knew of him from his reputation in criminal circles they still could not just walk in off the street loaded with stolen goods and expect a friendly reception. A unique language of signals has developed over the ages to manage such obstacles. More like a multitude of local dialects than a language I suppose.
I've not seen fit to pursue the local 'dialect', though I'm sure Ahnassi would be happy to share it with me. Today, I was totally surprised to see the familiar signs of my own native dialect. The surprise came, really, from the confidence with which the signs were given, as well as the specific details. Frelene Acques turned out to be a 'relative' after all, and she knew it. The signals she gave were straight from my childhood. I acknowledged her signs without alerting Percius Mercius. Throughout the interviews and negotiations with my new guards I puzzled about what I had gotten myself mixed up in.
Three things were obvious. The attractive Breton was no warrior, or member of the Fighter's Guild. She had ingratiated herself with the guild steward for some reason that was most likely not what the pompous Cyrodiil believed. Somehow I was now a vital part of her plan, whatever that might be. In an effort to figure out more I invited Mercius to dinner, timing the invitation so that he could neither refuse nor go without the girl. She helped by letting out a delighted squeal at the mention of a dinner out. I sent word with one of my newly hired guards to let my household staff know that Bal Isra would be hosting its first guests.
The dinner was excellent, though I was too distracted to really appreciate it. I listened to everything the girl said, sorting it into broad categories.
There were obvious lies about her past, told for the benefit of her patron. She had apparently presented herself as a legitimate trader from the mainland, caught by the embargo and then infamously stripped of her goods by bandits. It was a good story, and played well with Mercius. A warrior, he sees himself cast as the hero in the damsel's tale. Like most good fabrications it is most likely embellished from some kernal of truth. Most likely she was running black market goods through the embargo.
Another series of half truths had lead Mercius into a very awkward position. The Comonna Tong presents themselves as a society of Dunmer businessmen; a sort of merchants guild that promotes local business. As such they can, and do, contract services from the fighter's guild. The fighters guild charter prevents them from contracting any illegal services, but in doing the legal tasks the mercenaries free the tong's own thugs for their less savory tasks. Very lucrative, and as long as the guild doesn't find out too much about their client's activities a fine relationship. In the course of investigating Frelene's losses Mercius has learned too much about the Tong, and nothing much about her.
Frelene's arrest by the Hlaalu was the final touch. Mercius was left with no way to avoid the truth of the connections between the 'innocent' Dunmer businessmen, the thugs of the Cammona Tong, and the leadership of House Hlaalu. There was no way he could avoid recognizing the truth, but also no way for him to prove it. The clever Breton thief was treading a very fine line. A search for solid evidence could easily reveal sordid truths about her that would sidetrack her intentions.
Laced through this background of the deception of Mercius were a number of points made for my benefit. These were harder to assess, as far as truthfulness, but their intent was clear. As Redoran Hortator and Archmage I have significant influence. Frelene is maneuvering to have that influence brought to bear against the tong. She is willing to draw heavily on our connected past to accomplish her aims. Her methods have fallen short of outright blackmail, so far, but I have to wonder how far she will go.