For those just tuning in: for every day that remains in May, I’m posting one example of my work to this blog in order to help garner attention for my Patreon, so that I can start earning enough money to actually live on instead of slowly and forever circling the drain.
My best known work (not counting that Tumblr post where I wrote the words to the song from Aladdin underneath a picture of Batman and Superman, which has been translated into multiple languages and adapted into multiple mediums) is Tales of MU, a sprawling serial story set in a university in a world that is meant to be something like a typical “medieval fantasy” world if it were allowed to chronologically progress to something approximating the modern age.
While the main story of MU focuses on the life and times of one Mackenzie Blaise, a budding queer college student learning to love herself and several other people, from time to time I write “Other Tales”, side stories and spin-offs and prequels and midquels. Some of them relate to the main story. Some flesh out the setting and the world. Some of these work well enough as stand-alone fantasy stories that the setting is more or less incidental.
I recently separated my Tales of MU activities into its own Patreon, to make it easier to market both it and everything else I write. Nevertheless, when I sat down to pick out nine short stories of mine that stand out as being representative of the best of what I do, there were a few of the MU tales of the standalone variety that insisted on coming forth and being recognized. This is one of them.
At the time I first published it, readers compared it to both Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett. I’ll let you decide for yourself how apt either comparison is.
An Internal Matter
By Alexandra Erin
“Sorry sir, but we are currently closed for renovations,” the short, stocky doorman said. His uniform was trimmed with festive holiday garlands. Snow was on the ground and the whole of the high street was decked out with gold tinsel and red ribbons.
“I’m an investigator with the Imperial Bureau of Finding,” Mike Gregory said, holding up his credentials.
“Sorry sir, but we are currently closed for renovations,” the sentinel repeated. Gregory rolled his eyes and knocked on the door, then peered through the little glass panes set into it. He thought he saw some movement in the dim hallway. He held his badge up, hoping it would be recognized.
“Hello, little girl!” the doorman called cheerfully. “Blessed season to you!”
“Bess’d season!” a girl of about three or four called back.
The investigator rolled his eyes again, though he had to fight to keep from smiling. He had to fight even harder when he glanced to the side and saw that the golem had pulled a tiny gift box out of his coat and was offering it to the tyke. The kid was visibly torn, obviously terrified by the bearded figure looming over her but also tempted by the present.
“Tell the nice man ‘thank you’,” her mother said, snatching the box away and handing it to her kid. She looked more frightened of the automaton than her kid was.
The door opened as the doorman was giving more packages to a pair of children. A silver-bearded dwarf, bald as a boiled egg and wearing a pair of pince-nez spectacles, peered up at Gregory.
“Are you from the constabulary?” he asked.
“Investigator Mike Gregory, IBF,” Gregory said, showing his badge.
“Forgive me for saying, but you’re awfully tall for an imp,” the dwarf said, chuckling.
“I haven’t actually heard that one before,” Gregory said. “You going to let me in?”
“Are you here about… the robbery?” the dwarf asked, whispering the last word and looking at the doorman and the latest child, both a good five feet away, as if he thought they were in on it.
“No, I’m here to buy a boat,” Gregory said.
“And I haven’t heard that one before,” the dwarf said. “I’m sorry, this whole thing has me out of sorts. Do come in, Mr. Gregory.”
He pulled the door open further and stepped back so the detective could enter.
“You closed the store but you’re still doing your giveaway?” Gregory asked.
“In all honesty, I didn’t give it any thought when I closed the shop… and since I didn’t say to notgive the gifts, of course it goes ahead and does it. All the same, it’s a very popular promotion,” he said. “The people around here have come to expect it. They bring their children into the city to see the window displays and get a little gift from Clan Sternbauer… it’s terrible that we were robbed, but why should I compound that by stealing away that bit of joy?”
“You’re all heart, Mr….”
“Gebhard,” he said.
“Just Gebhard,” the dwarf said. “Master Jeweler, fifth rank, of Clan Sternbauer. I’m sorry for my manner at the door… we aren’t used to dealing with outside authorities. Ordinarily, when items go missing, Clan Sternbauer treats it as a purely internal matter, but given the sheer scope of the transgression…”
“Mr. Gebhard, the Bureau is here to help, not to steal your secrets,” Gregory said. “Also, failure to report a crime can itself be a crime.”
“Well, naturally, which is why we conduct a thorough internal investigation to see if a crime has been committed,” Gebhard said, wringing his hands as he led Gregory through the second set of doors, past a duplicate of the uniformed figure outside, and into the shop. The interior of CS&C didn’t look like a place that had been robbed of millions of silver in merchandise. Everything was bright, shiny, and clean. There were no signs of violence, no visible damage, and plenty of extremely valuable-looking goodies hanging out in plain sight. “In this case, the evidence is unmistakable. A dwarven dozen items, all gone. I don’t know what it is about this time of year. I understand it’s supposed to be a festive season, but we get more trouble at Khersentide… did you know that last year, somebody cleft our Sam in twain with a greatsword?”
“Murder?” Gregory said. “I didn’t hear about that… if you kept something like that ‘an internal matter’…”
“Murder? Well, some of us might have felt it was like a murder, but in point of fact it was an act of vandalism. Sam is our faithful doorman, you see… we took it a little hard, as he’s one of the most visible symbols of our company. We sell little animated plushes on our weavesite, you know, and in the stores during the holidays.”
“I do remember hearing about that now,” Gregory said.
“The perpetrator was never found, unfortunately,” Gebhard said. “It was such a random, senseless thing…”
“Right,” the detective said. “Do you have a list of what’s missing?”
“Yes, right over here,” Gebhard said. He went through a gate back onto the raised platform behind the counter… this let him look the imperial agent in the eye as he spoke, Gregory noticed. Gebhard picked up a piece of parchment and held it out.
Gregory scanned it.
“Platinum… platinum… platinum… what the hell is palladium?”
“For most purposes, it might be thought of as platinum, but more so,” Gebhard said.
“So, what do these things have in common?”
“Well, they’re all quite small, and very valuable,” the dwarf said. “Though, they hardly rank among the most valuable objects in our collection. Certainly none of them are unique. None of them came out of a vault or a higher security area, though we say ‘higher security’ for a reason. Our default precautions are nothing to sneeze at.”
“What are they?” Gregory asked.
“Well, to begin with, do you see this glass?” the dwarf asked, tapping the top of the counter.
“No, you don’t. What you see is metal that has been rendered ninety-nine percent invisible.”
“What kind of metal?”
“That’s a trade secret, but suffice it to say, the frame it’s in would give way long before a thief managed to so much as scratch it. As you can see, that hasn’t happened.”
“And if somebody were that determined?” the detective asked.
“Our first countermeasures kick in on the third violent blow,” Gebhard said. “They would be enough to render most thieves insensate. In any event, any contact with the cases or the merchandise after the shop has been locked down would sound an alarm in our living quarters below.”
“You mean, you live on the premises?”
“Yes. Well, I mean beneath them, of course.”
“How many people are in residence here, exactly?”
“Myself, and seven apprentices.”
“I’m going to need to talk to your apprentices,” Gregory said.
“They’re all waiting downstairs,” he said. “They know the shop is closed, but they don’t know why. But, Mr. Gregory, I can assure you they had nothing to do with it… once we’ve closed the shop for the day, the passage is closed. It can only be opened in an emergency, which requires the cooperation of three staff members and results in a silent alert to all of us.”
“Who would be able to disable that, apart from yourself?”
“Nobody, including myself,” Gebhard said. “And I check those wards and seals every day before opening. I double-checked them when I discovered the shortages.”
“So, nobody used the trapdoor,” Gregory said. “I assume the security on the external doors is even higher?”
“As high as the law allows,” Gebhard said. “That’s one reason we have double doors, actually… those laws allow much more persuasive protections on the inner set than they do on the ones that anybody could stumble against.”
“I’m sure you could see the advantages during daytime operations,” Gebhard said. “Jewelry frequently leaves the protection of the cases in the normal course of the working day. If somebody does a runner, we have the ability to trap them in the hallway and subdue them through the vertical target access slots.”
“We used to call them ‘glory holes’, but apparently that term’s picked up another meaning in the past century,” Gebhard said. “We also have surveillance balls recessed in the ceiling above the entryway. They record all activity in front of the store and in the hallway. My review of last night’s impressions revealed nothing, though you’re welcome to check it yourself.”
“Thanks, we will,” Gregory said. “Mr. Gebhard, not to be indelicate, but you do realize that with this level of security, any robbery is pretty much going to have to be an inside job?”
“Well, of course I know that,” the dwarf sputtered. “That’s why we usually try to handle things ourselves… but that’s usually somebody being imprudent during the day, when money and jewelry are out in the open and changing hands. I can’t see how one of my apprentices could be involved in this.”
“Okay, let’s leave that alone for the moment,” Gregory said. “We know the doors weren’t forced, and neither were the jewelry cases. Teleportation? Phasing? Dimensional gate?”
“All quite impossible,” Gebhard said. “And anybody who tried would get a nasty surprise.”
“What sort of surprise?”
“I’m afraid I can’t reveal that,” Gebhard said. “You have to understand, I’m hardly comfortable discussing our security precautions even to the extent that I’ve done so far.”
“Do you think the Imperium is going to rob your store?”
“Under the present government? No,” Gebhard said. “Clan Sternbauer has a wonderful relationship with the Imperial Republic… in fact, I personally fought alongside Magisterion I. Which brings me to my point: human governments tend to change at an alarming pace. We’ll play along with the current regime, but we don’t expect it to last forever.”
“Mr. Gebhard, when our office received the report, we wanted to get a whole team of investigators down here,” he said. “Forensic enchanters, diviners, the whole works… but we had to go through the dwarven embassy, and they said the most we could send was a single agent, with no magical sensitivity. What I’m trying to say here is that we’re bending over backwards to respect your privacy here… and that isn’t a great position to catch crooks from.”
“I’m sorry, but my hands are tied,” Gebhard said. “I did anticipate this need on your part, and have sent word to my superiors, but I cannot give any more specific information about our magical protections until I receive that word.”
“What if I come back with an imperial decree ordering your compliance?”
“Then I will compose a brief note to my grandchildren and ask to borrow your sword for a moment,” Gebhard said. “It will be messy, but poison is somewhat unreliable when ingested by my kind.”
“Are you for real?”
“Completely. Mr. Gregory, I will not get my clan in ‘hot water’ with the Imperium by breaking its laws, but neither will I dishonor the laws of my own people,” Gebhard said. “For both of our conveniences, I suggest you wait until I hear from headquarters. In the meantime, perhaps we should see what you can come up with based on the information available? Because I can assure you, if you did know the scope of our protections, you would agree that it’s not possible for an item to have been removed from the premises by means such as teleportation or extradimensional transit.”
“No? What about the Khersentide presents?” Gregory asked. “I didn’t see any bulges in Sam’s coat.”
“Ah. That. Hmm… well, you’ve hit on the one exception,” Gebhard said. “Yes, for our gift giveaway, we attach an extradimensional storage pouch to the inside of his jacket. Patrons… and employees… are stopped in the hallway if they’re carrying similar devices, but the spell screens for Sam’s sack specially.”
“So where is he, at night?” Gregory asked. “Sam the Doorman. Does he stand there all night, does he join you in the basement, does he go home to Samantha and their little Samlings?”
“Oh, no, he comes inside with his brother when we close. They straighten up after we go downstairs… wipe the display cases down, clean whatever jewelry’s been recently handled, and so on. It really is an ingenious system. We used to have one dwarf stay behind and do the cleaning, but there was too much temptation and distrust.”
“That means Sam can touch the display cases without setting off any wards?”
“Well, yes, I suppose ‘he’ can,” Gebhard said slowly. “I didn’t think of that, of course… as much as we have a tendency to imbue him with a personality, he is, after all, only a golem.”
“So, what exactly stops Sammy from slipping a few items in his extradimensional pouch?”
“Are you serious, Mr. Gregory? Sam is mindless… he follows orders and that’s all he does.”
“What if somebody ordered him to?” Gregory asked. “Would he do it then?”
“That isn’t among the orders he recognizes,” Gebhard said. “Our ‘Sams’ are made to exacting specifications. All of our stores use two models: the outdoor one, which is both more durable and more versatile, and the indoor one. Neither model recognizes the Master Jeweler or his apprentices as their owner and master, but instead are given a specific and precise set of instructions by their maker. These instructions include a directive to follow certain sets of orders when given by a Clan Sternbauer & Company employee, and stealing from the company most certainly does not fall within those parameters.”
“Who is that maker?”
“Each location has one golem maker who is engaged… quite literally, as they are under a geas of secrecy about our specs… to produce Sams,” Gebhard said.
“That would be… well, that would be among the information I’ve requested permission to release,” Gebhard said.
“Really?” Gregory asked. “It hardly seems like it would be a breach of secrecy, if the golem maker’s not able to talk about the Sams’ construction or directives, anyway… in fact, it almost sounded like you were about to tell me.”
“Yes, well, I was, but then I thought better of it,” Gebhard said. “It’s really not the sort of thing I can discuss without permission.”
“Are you sure?” Gregory asked.
“Well, think hard about that,” Gregory said. “And maybe talk to your people about expediting your request, because I can get an imperial decree in a matter of hours and I’d hate to see you punching your ticket over something as small as this.”
“I hardly think it’s important for you to talk to our golem maker, Mr. Gregory,” Gebhard said. “We will be happy to investigate this facet of the matter ourselves, internally…”
“You realize that if you make an act of retribution against an Imperial citizen, on Imperial soil, that’s not only a crime but possibly an act of war, Mr. Gebhard?”
“Sir, I have no idea what you’re insinuating,” Gebhard said. “Why don’t you come back this afternoon? I’m sure I’ll have the go-ahead to give you all the information you need by then… I can have my apprentice notify the bureau the instant it comes in.”
“Yeah, sure,” Gregory said. “But remember what I said: an act of war.”
“I’ll take that under advisement.”
“Take this under advisement, too… there’s an old human saying: nobody kills a kid at Khersentide and gets away with it.”
“I definitely haven’t heard that one.”
A message for Mike Gregory arrived at the Bureau headquarters at one minute past noon. It contained the name and address of a golem maker and a note that the clan chiefs had agreed with the investigator that this information was not crucial to withhold. Gregory headed to the enchanter’s home workshop with sirens blazing, but he was too late to prevent the golem maker’s death via sixteen crossbow bolts to the back.
Many campaign contributions later, this death was ruled a suicide.
The fourteen stolen pieces of jewelry were never officially recovered. They certainly weren’t found on the golem maker’s body, and if they had turned up back at the store from which they had been stolen there would have been some awkward questions. But as Gebhard had noted, none of the pieces were unique, and items identical to them were certainly available at the other CS&C locations up and down the eastern seaboard.
The unfortunate golem maker’s six-year-old son… who, in what can only officially be described as a freakish coincidence, had been the first person to receive a gift box from Sam the morning of the robbery… happened to be in his father’s workshop at the time of his death, but thankfully he was sound asleep… very sound asleep. He was physically unharmed, and given to the care of his mother.
Early the following year, the firm of Clan Sternbauer & Company bought the exclusive services of a single golem maker and moved production of their trademarked “Sam The Doorman” golems under him.
Tales of MU resumes updates on June 1st. If you wish to support Tales of MU, you can pledge an amount per chapter/posting on its dedicated Patreon. Otherwise, if you support me as an author, any MUniverse stories such as this one that can stand on their own will also be cross-posted to my author Patreon.
If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.