A bold fantasy in the tradition of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, The Merchant Princes is a sweeping new series from the hottest new writer in science fiction!Miriam Beckstein is happy in her life. She's a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, making good money doing what she loves. When her researcher brings her iron-clad evidence of a money-laundering scheme, Miriam thinks she's found the story of the year. But when she takes it to her editor, she's fired on the spot and gets a death threat from the criminals she has uncovered.Before the day is over, she's received a locket left by the mother she never knew-the mother who was murdered when she was an infant. Within is a knotwork pattern, which has a hypnotic effect on her. Before she knows it, she's transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons, and where world-skipping assassins lurk just on the other side of reality - a world where her true family runs things.The six families of the Clan rule the kingdom of Gruinmarkt from behind the scenes, a mixture of nobility and criminal conspirators whose power to walk between the worlds makes them rich in both. Braids of family loyalty and intermarriage provide a fragile guarantee of peace, but a recently-ended civil war has left the families shaken and suspicious.Taken in by her mother's people, she becomes the star of the story of the century-as Cinderella without a fairy godmother. As her mother's heir, Miriam is hailed as the prodigal countess Helge Thorold-Hjorth, and feted and feasted. Caught up in schemes and plots centuries in the making, Miriam is surrounded by unlikely allies, forbidden loves, lethal contraband, and, most dangerous of all, her family. Her unexpected return will supercede the claims of other clan members to her mother's fortune and power, and whoever killed her mother will be happy to see her dead, too.Behind all this lie deeper secrets still, which threaten everyone and everything she has ever known. Patterns of deception and interlocking lies, as intricate as the knotwork between the universes. But Miriam is no one's pawn, and is determined to conquer her new home on her own terms.Blending the creativity and humor of Roger Zelazny, the adventure of H. Beam Piper and Philip Jose Farmer, and the rigor and scope of a science-fiction writer on the grandest scale, Charles Stross has set a new standard for fantasy epics. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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May 01, 2005
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Excerpt from The Family Trade by Charles Stross
Ten and a half hours before a mounted knight with a machine gun tried to kill her, tech journalist Miriam Beckstein lost her job. Before the day was out, her pink slip would set in train a chain of events that would topple governments, trigger civil wars, and kill thousands. It would be the biggest scoop in her career, in any journalist's career-- bigger than Watergate, bigger than 9/11--and it would be Miriam's story. But as of seven o'clock in the morning, the story lay in her future: All she knew was that it was a rainy Monday morning in October, she had a job to do and copy to write, and there was an editorial meeting scheduled for ten.
The sky was the color of a dead laptop display, silver-gray and full of rain. Miriam yawned and came awake to the Monday morning babble of the anchorman on her alarm radio.
"--Bombing continues in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in business news, the markets are down forty-seven points on the word that Cisco is laying off another three thousand employees," announced the anchor. "Ever since 9/11, coming on top of the collapse of the dot-com sector, their biggest customers are hunkering down. Tom, how does it look from where you're sitting--"
"Shut up," she mumbled and killed the volume. "I don't want to hear this." Most of the tech sector was taking a beating. Which in turn meant that The Industry Weatherman's readers--venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs, along with the wannabe day traders--would be taking a beating. Her own beat, the biotech firms, were solid, but the collapsing internet sector was making waves. If something didn't happen to relieve the plummeting circulation figures soon, there would be trouble.
Trouble. Monday. "I'll give you trouble," she muttered, face forming a grin that might have frightened some of those readers, had they been able to see it. "Trouble is my middle name." And trouble was good news, for a senior reporter on The Industry Weatherman.
She slid into her bathrobe, shivering at the cold fabric, then shuffled along stripped pine boards to the bathroom for morning ablutions and two minutes with the electric toothbrush. Standing before the bathroom mirror under the merciless glare of the spotlights, she shivered at what she saw in it: every minute of her thirty-two years, in unforgiving detail. "Abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons," she muttered grimly as she tried to brush some life into her shoulder-length hair, which was stubbornly black and locked in a vicious rear-guard action against the ochre highlights she bombarded it with on a weekly basis. Giving up after a couple of minutes, she fled downstairs to the kitchen.
The kitchen was a bright shade of yellow, cozy and immune to the gloom of autumn mornings. Relieved, Miriam switched on the coffee percolator and made herself a bowl of granola--what Ben had always called her rabbit-food breakfast.
Back upstairs, fortified by an unfeasibly large mug of coffee, she had to work out what to wear. She dived into her closet and found herself using her teeth to tear the plastic bag off one of the three suits she'd had dry-cleaned on Friday--only to discover it was her black formal interview affair, not at all the right thing for a rainy Monday pounding the streets--or at least doing telephone interviews from a cubicle in the office. She started again and finally managed to put together an outfit. Black boots, trousers, jacket, turtle-neck, and trench coat: as black as her Monday morning mood. I look like a gangster, she thought and chuckled to herself. "Gangsters!" That was what she had to do today. One glance at her watch told her that she didn't have time for makeup. It wasn't as if she had to impress anyone at the office anyway: They knew damned well who she was.
She slid behind the wheel of her four-year-old Saturn, and thankfully it started first time. But traffic was backed up, one of her wiper blades needed replacing, the radio had taken to crackling erratically, and she couldn't stop yawning. Mondays, she thought. My favorite day! Not. At least she had a parking space waiting for her--one of the handful reserved for senior journalists who had to go places and interview thrusting new economy executives. Or money-laundering gangsters, the nouveau riche of the pharmaceutical world.
Twenty minutes later she pulled into a crowded lot behind an anonymous office building in Cambridge, just off Somerville Avenue, with satellite dishes on the roof and fat cables snaking down into the basement. Headquarters of The Industry Weatherman, journal of the tech VC community and Miriam's employer for the past three years. She swiped her pass-card, hit the elevator up to the third floor, and stepped out into cubicle farm chaos. Desks with PCs and drifts of paper that overflowed onto the floor: A couple of harried Puerto Rican cleaners emptied garbage cans into a trolley laden with bags, to a background of phones ringing and anchors gabbling on CNN, Bloomberg, Fox. Black space-age Aeron chairs everywhere, all wire and plastic, electric chairs for a fully wired future.
" 'Lo, Emily," she nodded, passing the departmental secretary.
"Hi! With you in a sec." Emily lifted her finger from the "mute" button, went back to glassy-eyed attention. "Yes, I'll send them up as soon as--"
Miriam's desk was clean: The stack of press releases was orderly, the computer monitor was polished, and there were no dead coffee cups lying around. By tech journalist standards, this made her a neat freak. She'd always been that way about her work, even when she was a toddler. Liked all her crayons lined up in a row. Occasionally she wished she could manage the housework the same way, but for some reason the skill set didn't seem to be transferable. But this was work, and work was always under control. I wonder where Paulie's gotten to?
"Hi, babe!" As if on cue, Paulette poked her head around the side of the partition. Short, blonde, and bubbly, not even a rainy Monday morning could dent her enthusiasm. "How's it going? You ready to teach these goodfellas a lesson?"
" 'Goodfellas?' " Miriam raised an eyebrow. Paulette took the cue, slid sideways into her cubicle, and dropped into the spare chair, forcing Miriam to shuffle sideways to make room. Paulie was obviously enjoying herself: It was one of the few benefits of being a research gofer. Miriam waited.
"Goodfellas," Paulette said with relish. "You want a coffee? This is gonna take a while."
"Coffee." Miriam considered. "That would be good."
"Yeah, well." Paulette stood up. "Read this, it'll save us both some time." She pointed out a two-inch-thick sheaf of printouts and photocopies to Miriam, then made a beeline for the departmental coffeepot.
Miriam sighed and rubbed her eyes as she read the first page. Paulie had done her job with terrifying efficiency yet again: Miriam had only worked with her on a couple of investigations before--mostly Miriam's workload didn't require the data mining Paulette specialized in--but every single time she'd come away feeling a little dizzy.
Automobile emissions tests in California? Miriam squinted and turned the page. Failed autos, a chain of repair shops buying them for cash and shipping them south to Mexico and Brazil for stripping or resale. "What's this got to do with--" she stopped. "Aha!"
"Nondairy creamer, one sweetener," said Paulie, planting a coffee mug at her left hand.
"This is great stuff," Miriam muttered, flipping more pages. Company accounts. A chain of repair shops that-- "I was hoping you'd find something in the small shareholders. How much are these guys in for?"
"They're buying about ten, eleven million in shares each year." Paulette shrugged, then blew across her coffee and pulled a face. "Which is crazy, because their business only turns over about fifteen mill. What kind of business puts eighty percent of its gross into a pension fund? One that bought two hundred and seventy-four autos last year for fifty bucks a shot, shipped them south of the border, and made an average of forty thousand bucks for each one they sold. And the couple of listed owners I phoned didn't want to talk."
Miriam looked up suddenly. "You phoned them?" she demanded.
"Yes, I--oh. Relax, I told them I was a dealership in Vegas and I was just doing a background check."
" 'Background check.' " Miriam snorted. "What if they've got caller-ID?"
"You think they're going to follow it up?" Paulette asked, looking worried.
"Paulie, you've got eleven million in cash being laundered through this car dealership and you think they're not going to sit up and listen if someone starts asking questions about where those beaters are coming from and how come they're fetching more than a new Lexus south of the border?"
"Oh. Oh shit."
"Yes. 'Oh shit' indeed. How'd you get into the used car trail anyway?"
Paulette shrugged and looked slightly embarrassed. "You asked me to follow up the shareholders for Proteome Dynamics and Biphase Technologies. Pacific Auto Services looked kind of odd to me--why would a car dealership have a pension fund sticking eight digits into cutting-edge proteome research? And there's another ten like them, too. Small mom-and-pop businesses doing a lot of export down south with seven- or eight-digit stakeholdings. I traced another--flip to the next?"
"Okay. Dallas Used Semiconductors. Buying used IBM mainframe kit? That's not our--and selling it to--oh shit."
"Yeah." Paulie frowned. "I looked up the book value. Whoever's buying those five-year-old computers down in Argentina is paying ninety percent of the price for new kit in cash greenbacks--they're the next thing to legal currency down there. But up here, a five-year-old mainframe goes for about two cents on the dollar."
"And you're sure all this is going into Proteome and Biphase?" Miriam shook the thick sheaf of paper into shape. "I can't believe this!"
"Believe it." Paulette drained her coffee cup and shoved a stray lock of hair back into position.
Miriam whistled tunelessly. "What's the bottom line?"
" 'The bottom line?' " Paulette looked uncomfortable. "I haven't counted it, but--"
"Make a guess."
"I'd say someone is laundering between fifty and a hundred million dollars a year here. Turning dirty cash into clean shares in Proteome Dynamics and Biphase Technologies. Enough to show up in their SEC filings. So your hunch was right."
"And nobody in Executive Country has asked any questions," Miriam concluded. "If I was paranoid, I'd say it's like a conspiracy of silence. Hmm." She put her mug down. "Paulie. You worked for a law firm. Would you call this .. . circumstantial?"
" 'Circumstantial?'" Paulette's expression was almost pitying. "Who's paying you, the defense? This is enough to get the FBI and the DA muttering about RICO."
"Yeah, but. . ." Miriam nodded to herself. "Look, this is heavy. Heavier than usual anyway. I can guarantee you that if we spring this story we'll get three responses. One will be flowers in our hair, and the other will be a bunch of cease-and-desist letters from attorneys. Freedom of the press is all very well, but a good reputation and improved circulation figures won't buy us defense lawyers, which is why I want to double-check everything in here before I go upstairs and tell Sandy we want the cover. Because the third response is going to be oh-shit-I-don't-want-to-believe-this, because our great leader and teacher thinks the sun shines out of Biphase and I think he's into Proteome too."
"Who do you take me for?" Paulette pointed at the pile. "That's primary, Miriam, the wellspring. SEC filings, public accounts, the whole lot. Smoking gun. The summary sheet-- " she tugged at a Post-it note gummed to a page a third of the way down the stack--"says it all. I was in here all day yesterday and half the evening--"
"I'm sorry!" Miriam raised her hand. "Hey, really. I had no idea."
"I kind of lost track of time," Paulette admitted. She smiled. "It's not often I get something interesting to dig into. Anyway, if the boss is into these two, I'd think he'd be glad of the warning. Gives him time to pull out his stake before we run the story."
"Yeah, well." Miriam stood up. "I think we want to bypass Sandy. This goes to the top."
"But Sandy needs to know. It'll mess with his page plan--"
"Yeah, but someone has to call Legal before we run with this. It's the biggest scoop we've had all year. Want to come with me? I think you earned at least half the credit..."
They shared the elevator up to executive row in silence. It was walled in mirrors, reflecting their contrasts: Paulette, a short blonde with disorderly curls and a bright red blouse, and Miriam, a slim five-foot-eight, dressed entirely in black. The business research wonk and the journalist, on their way to see the editorial director. Some Mondays are better than others, thought Miriam. She smiled tightly at Paulette in the mirror and Paulie grinned back: a worried expression, slightly apprehensive.
The Industry Weatherman was mostly owned by a tech venture capital firm who operated out of the top floors of the building, their offices intermingled with those of the magazine's directors. Two floors up, the corridors featured a better grade of carpet and the walls were genuine partitions covered in oak veneer, rather than fabric-padded cubicles. That was the only difference she could see--that and the fact that some of the occupants were assholes like the people she wrote glowing profiles of for a living. I've never met a tech VC who a shark would bite, Miriam thought grumpily. Professional courtesy among killers. The current incumbent of the revolving door office labeled EDITORIAL DIRECTOR--officially a vice president--was an often-absent executive by the name of Joe Dixon. Miriam led Paulette to the office and paused for a moment, then knocked on the door, half-hoping to find he wasn't there.
"Come in." The door opened in her face, and it was Joe himself, not his secretary. He was over six feet, with expensively waved black hair, wearing his suit jacket over an open-necked dress shirt. He oozed corporate polish: If he'd been ten years older, he could have made a credible movie career as a captain of industry. As it was, Miriam always found herself wondering how he'd climbed into the boardroom so young. He was in his mid-thirties, not much older than she was. "Hi." He took in Miriam and Paulette standing just behind her and smiled. "What can I do for you?"
Miriam smiled back. "May we have a moment?" she asked.
"Sure, come in." Joe retreated behind his desk. "Have a chair, both of you." He nodded at Paulette. "Miriam, we haven't been introduced."
"Oh, yes. Joe Dixon, Paulette Milan. Paulie is one of our heavy hitters in industrial research. She's been working with me on a story and I figured we'd better bring it to you first before taking it to the weekly production meeting. It's a bit, uh, sensitive."
" 'Sensitive.'" Joe leaned back in his chair and looked straight at her. "Is it big?"
"Could be," Miriam said noncommittally. Big? It's the biggest I've ever worked on! A big story in her line of work might make or break a career; this one might send people to jail. "It has complexities to it that made me think you'd want advance warning before it breaks."
"Tell me about it," said Joe.
"Okay. Paulie, you want to start with your end?" She passed Paulette the file.
"Yeah." Paulie grimaced as she opened the file and launched into her explanation. "In a nutshell, they're laundries for dirty money. There's enough of a pattern to it that if I was a DA in California I'd be picking up the phone to the local FBI office."
"That's why I figured you'd want to know," Miriam explained. "This is a big deal, Joe. I think we've got enough to pin a money-laundering rap on a couple of really big corporations and make it stick. But last November you were talking to some folks at Proteome, and I figured you might want to refer this to Legal and make sure you're fire-walled before this hits the fan."
"Well. That's very interesting." Joe smiled back at her. "Is that your file on this story?"
"Yeah," said Paulette.
"Would you mind leaving it with me?" he asked. He cleared his throat. "I'm kind of embarrassed," he said, shrugging a small-boy shrug. The defensive set of his shoulders backed his words. "Look, I'm going to have to read this myself. Obviously, the scope for mistakes is--" he shrugged.
Suddenly Miriam had a sinking feeling: It's going to be bad. She racked her brains for clues. Is he going to try to bury us?
Joe shook his head. "Look, I'd like to start by saying that this isn't about anything you've done," he added hurriedly. "It's just that we've got an investment to protect and I need to work out how to do so."
"Before we break the story." Miriam forced another, broader, smile. "It was all in the public record," she added. "If we don't break it, one of our competitors will."
"Oh, I don't know," Joe said smoothly. "Listen, I'll get back to you in an hour or so. If you leave this with me for now, I just need to go and talk to someone in Legal so we can sort out how to respond. Then I'll let you know how we're going to handle it."
"Oh, okay then," said Paulette acceptingly.
Miriam let her expression freeze in a fixed grin. Oh shit, she thought as she stood up. "Thanks for giving us your time," she said.
"Let yourselves out," Joe said tersely, already turning the first page.
Out in the corridor, Paulette turned to Miriam. "Didn't that go well?" she insisted.
Miriam took a deep breath. "Paulie."
Her knees felt weak. "Something's wrong."
"What?" Paulette looked concerned.
"Elevator." She hit the "call" button and waited in silence, trying to still the butterflies in her stomach. It arrived, and she waited for the doors to close behind them before she continued. "I may just have made a bad mistake."
" 'Mistake?'" Paulette looked puzzled. "You don't think--"
"He didn't say anything about publishing," Miriam said slowly. "Not one word. What were the other names on that list of small investors? The ones you didn't check?"
"The list? He's got--" Paulette frowned.
"Was Somerville Investments one of them?"
"Somerville? Could be. Why? Who are they?"
"Because that's--" Miriam pointed a finger at the roof and circled. She watched Paulette's eyes grow round.
"I'm thinking about magazine returns from the newsstand side of the business, Paulie. Don't you know we've got low returns by industry standards? And people buy magazines for cash."
"I'm sorry, Paulie."
When they got back to Miriam's cubicle, a uniformed security guard and a suit from Human Resources were already waiting for them.