Calvert Sadja's first thought when she entered the warehouse was that she had never seen so much silk in one place before.

That alone was enough to clue her in to who had left the message for her. So the Cepeda house was ready to make some kind of alliance. A wise decision, she thought, but one that Cepeda Victor had been too contumacious to see so far. If he had been able to see it earlier, the simple Cepeda-Andrade gang war wouldn't have escalated from the simple dispute over trading prerogatives into a war that tore the entire country in two. But instead he had brought the Delora family, longtime allies, into the fray, and all the other families fell into one side or the other like dominoes.

The Calverts were still neutral, though. Generations of tradition had kept them so. They were invaluable as arbitrators and negotiators. Sadja was employed with the Andrade family, but her status kept her safe from Cepeda hostility. She had no doubt that at least one of her family, probably Sharline, was serving the Cepeda similarly.

In this case, though, she was enjoined to protect Andrade interests, and had to try to subsume her own family identity and think like an Andrade. The decisions she made must be authorized by the family as she made them.

"Ah, Mem Calvert," a deep voice said from behind a bale of silk. "Here at last."

"A thousand pardons, Mem Cepeda," she said. "The Redbones had set up a roadblock, and scrutinized my negotiator's ID very closely. Apparently there are rumours going around of infiltrators with false ID's getting in and doing quite a lot of damage." The voice sounded familiar, and as she rounded the bale, she saw her suspicions were correct--it was Cepeda Victor himself she was meeting with.

"An understandable suspicion," he rumbled. "How else to explain the sudden fall of the Huang, who seemed so invincible? I have heard many other stories to explain the fall, from treachery on the part of the Andrade to forbidden bioweapons. But enough of that. We have business to discuss."

Sadja bowed. Protocol dictated further conversation, small talk being ideal, before getting to serious business. But even small talk suffered in wartime, and protocol even more. The Andrade kept to it scrupulously, saying that if war was all it took to strip the veneer of politeness from a man, then what was the use in pretending the rest of the time? But she welcomed an opportunity to conclude her business more rapidly. The roadblock had made her more nervous than she had expected.

"It has come to the attention of the Cepeda that a certain family is getting to be a threat to us. The threat the Andrade pose to our trade and our livelihood pales in comparison."

This was serious, then. It explained why Cepeda Victor himself came to negotiate. "What family?"

"The Delora, once an ally of ours, has become more and more independent, bringing smaller families under its direct control. They promise a change to the joint tyranny that we and the Andrade have supposedly engineered together over the past few decades, which this war is only an extreme attempt to camouflage."

Sadja's mind was whirling. The Cepeda wanted aid against one of their erstwhile allies, from their current enemies. Surely, uniting the Andrade and Cepeda against a common enemy would bring an end to the war that neither family really wanted, at this point, without loss of face on either side. By now the war had a momentum of itself, and would not come to an easy halt without the destruction of one family or the other. But now there was an alternative... It still could be a trap, but so much of her, despite her neutrality, wanted it to be true, and an end to the war found... And she realized that it didn't really matter whether Cepeda's claim was true or not, as long as sufficient evidence could be fabricated if it were not. "It sounds like a viable course of action," she said guardedly.

Cepeda smiled. "I thought you might see it that way. I will, of course, send my own representative to discuss details with Andrade, but the initial resolve is sufficient for the present. It goes without saying that it is important that the Delora get no word of this."

Sadja nodded, and was about to make a response when fire suddenly blossomed at one end of the warehouse. She gasped, and Cepeda whirled. "My guard!" he shouted. Then he jerked as three crossbow bolts buried themselves in his chest.

I'm a Calvert, she thought wildly. They won't dare harm a Calvert. There was another explosion behind her, and then she felt an impact in her leg. She looked and saw a crossbow bolt protruding there. She tried to move the leg, but could not. Another bolt hit her in the abdomen, and she collapsed on the floor.

Her mind, in strange detachment, was thinking, Andrade's Calvert and the Cepeda die in a fire. Who will be blamed for it? The Calverts' neutrality violated. Who will they side with? No alliance is permanent, of course, but whoever has the Calverts on their side will have a tremendous advantage.

Calvert Sadja's last thought was that she had never seen silk burn before. It seemed to do well enough.

Based on the words: escalate, permanent, fire, silk

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey /