It wasn’t as bad as she’d feared; Akinda’s work in the heights of finance took her to a surprising number of dingy dives, but this particular bar seemed borderline respectable. Certainly on the shabby side for the neighborhood, which lay in the very shadow of the walled hill on which loomed the manor complex of House Madouri, itself practically a fortified town in the middle of the city of Madouris. Of course, she recognized the role such a bar in such a place served: it was a discreet haven in which the city’s movers and shakers could conduct shady dealings.
Of the kind she was doing now.
Akinda had set herself up in what was probably the most popular seat in the house, a corner booth with an unobstructed view of the entrance. Luckily there had been no competition for the spot, and in fact she was the only person present save the sleepy-looking bartender. No great surprise, as it was still barely evening, early enough that the bar had only just opened. She laid out a folder of papers before her which she pretended to peruse while also pretending to sip at her glass of wine. Mostly, she studied the disinterested man behind the bar, the door to the quiet street outside, the other booths, the smoke-stained posters advertising long-defunct plays, the glimpses of dark wood paneling peeking between them. This place had fairy lamps, but just two and the old kind that flickered almost like torches.
Fortunately, her date didn’t keep her waiting long enough to wonder whether he had actually understood her necessarily cryptic message. The bartender looked up at the opening door, nodding a greeting to the man who stepped inside and then paused, blinking in the bar’s dimness.
Akinda raised one hand, beckoning him over, and he squared his shoulders, stepping forward.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked pointedly while the guest passed in front of him, and Akinda was somewhat displeased to see that he had the manners to stop and order a beer rather than loiter in the establishment for free. For her purposes, it would be better if this guy were the worst sort of bitter malcontent. If he actually had legitimate grievances to share with her, this could get complicated.
Thomas Schroeder was a tall man, his naturally lanky build filled out by years of factory work; he was, at least so far, all muscle and no gut. He had the classic Stalweiss coloring, or what was commonly thought to be such. Stalweiss who had brown hair and dark eyes could tan and pass for Tiraan, if they were lucky. Actual discrimination was rare in this day and age, but it happened, especially to pale blondes like Schroeder. She wondered if that had done anything to shape his attitude.
“Thank you for joining me, Mr. Schroeder,” she said politely while he slipped into the seat across from her with a bottle of what was probably the cheapest beer this place had, and still an indulgence for a man on a factory laborer’s wages.
“Sure,” he said noncommittally, watching her closely and not opening his beverage just yet. “You’re investigating the factory, right? You’re what, Treasury?”
“Treasury agents don’t make polite requests,” she said with dour amusement, “nor hold their meetings in discreetly out-of-the-way bars. No, if any Imperial Marshal wanted to talk with you, Mr. Schroeder, they’d be very…insistent. There will be nothing like that here; I am simply a representative of the central bank in Tiraas, looking to have a conversation.”
“Oh,” he said, nodding in understanding. There were, of course, a plethora of banks in Tiraas, and any institution in the capital had some grounds to call itself “central.” Everyone who knew the first thing about banks, though, knew which one was meant when it was just called a bank and not named. That was why she always introduced herself thus; the combination of money and the backing of a major cult sufficed to keep most people polite. “So, what can I do for you, then?”
“I am conducting an audit of Falconer Industries,” she said briskly, “preparatory to approving the loan sought from my bank for the upcoming expansion. I’m sure you’ve heard about it.”
“Of course,” he said, still wary.
“The upper management is very cooperative,” she continued in a neutral voice, “but naturally they take care to show me only the sides of their operations they wish known. In the interest of thoroughness, I like to get the input of employees… Off the record, in settings where they feel comfortable being honest.”
He slowly shoved the beer bottle back and forth between his hands, frowning at her. To her practiced eye, his expression betrayed a distinctive venal eagerness she had seen countless times. He didn’t jump at the bait just yet, however. “Sure, I understand that… I’m not looking to get on the wrong side of the bosses either. If you’re looking for somebody to bad-mouth the factory, I’m not your guy.”
Were that true, he’d have said so with a firm look at least and likely visible offense, not a coy sidelong glance. Bless Gimmick’s careful eyes, she had a real prospect here. Akinda leaned forward, adopting an earnest expression. “And yet, you did agree to meet with me. I promise you, Mr. Schroeder, no one values discretion as much as a banker. I carefully protect any source of valuable information. The bank takes great care to cultivate those who prove fruitful.”
An overt offer of compensation wouldn’t do. In this case, it shouldn’t be necessary. If she had read him correctly, he had enough reasons to supply what she needed without wanting to be paid for it.
And indeed, Schroeder matched her posture, pushing his beer aside to lean toward her across the table. “Well, I suppose the gods can’t fault a man for being truthful. As long as my name doesn’t get back to my boss in connection with this…”
“As long as anyone outside this booth is concerned, Mr. Schroeder, I have no idea who you are.”
There it was. The smile—small, controlled, but eager and malicious. Yep, he was one of those all right. “What would you like to know, then?”
“The bank must be fully aware of any risks before lending money,” she said smoothly. “Falconer Industries looks like an inviting prospect for investment, but large companies are often adept at putting on a good face in front of auditors. The most common pitfalls involve mismanagement. Abusive practices by the owners, anything which might make it difficult to retain employees…”
She’d had to dangle the bait pretty blatantly, but he finally snapped at it.
“You won’t hear this from Tarvedh or most of the floor supervisors,” Schroeder said, lowering his voice and leaning further forward. “Bunch of suck-ups—they’re all on the golden teat. But unless you’ve gotten in good with their little circle, you’ve got no future at FI. It’s the worst kind of old boy’s club, Ms. Akinda.” So he did know her name; he’d clearly paid closer attention than he wanted to let on. “Competence and work ethic don’t mean a thing—it’s whether you’re willing to do favors, sweep things under the rug, and especially keep your mouth shut.”
Big bucket of nothing, so far. “Have you some personal experience with these…problems?”
His face creased bitterly. “Don’t I ever. I’d be a senior supervisor long since if seniority meant a damn thing. But I’m the one who doesn’t stand for corner-cutting or slacking off. That’s my job, keeping those under me on task. Stupid me, caring enough about the factory to point out the same going on above my head! It goes right up to Falconer himself. Doesn’t matter that the work gets done fast or right, just that his favorites get preferential treatment.”
“This is very pertinent information, Mr. Schroeder,” she encouraged. “Can you give specific examples?”
Over the next five minutes, Akinda lost any hint of respect she might have felt for Thomas Schroeder while he launched into a laundry list of the pettiest non-issues imaginable. She immediately had enough information to eviscerate him verbally, had that been her goal, but instead she kept subtly goading him to keep talking, and to reveal himself for a venal, entitled little man who lorded his small amount of power over his subordinates and bitterly resented his resulting unpopularity among his colleagues. It was the work of a few noncommittal questions to reveal that he was passed over for raises and promotions because of his own performance, and his grievances were the imaginings of a narcissist with no room in his worldview for self-reflection. People like this were everywhere, unfortunately, an eternal pestilence hiding in the ranks of every employer. She had handled them by the dozen over the years. Akinda personally wouldn’t have passed up Schroeder for promotion, but tossed him out on his ear. Then again, nobody had ever put her in charge of a business.
His petty nonsense was precisely what she needed right now, so she let him talk, listening with half an ear while thinking ahead on how to guide this in the proper direction.
The door opened. Akinda did not betray herself by looking up, but well-practiced instinct warned her that time was up.
“Useful as this is,” she said, interrupting a tiresome anecdote about how Schroeder had been humiliated by his own superior for reasonably disciplining a tardy employee (probably spoken to in private for berating someone who’d been caught in a thunderstorm), “the bank won’t attach much credence to the personal accounts of one laborer. The way you describe the factory, there must be a great deal of unrest that your employees are afraid to bring up openly.”
“Yeah, that’s it exactly,” he agreed, nodding eagerly. She kept her eyes on him, though most of her attention was now on the soft footsteps pacing toward their corner booth. “I’ve been lucky enough because I’ve been with the company for years. Most of my subordinates, it’d be more than their job’s worth to say anything.”
“Well, that sounds like a truly terrible state of affairs, and no mistake!”
Schroeder looked up, a portrait of startlement, and then scowled. “Excuse me, this is a private conversation.” Akinda just sighed.
The man who had joined them could easily have looked ridiculous, were he not large enough to be menacing just by existing, or did he not exude self-assurance like a cloud of cologne. He actually wore a leather jerkin and a pointed felt hat with a jaunty little feather; his weathered face sported a waxed handlebar mustache and matching goatee. Between the heavy knife hanging from his belt and the way his blousy sleeves were rolled up to expose hairy forearms that looked capable of lifting an ox, he probably didn’t have to endure much ribbing over his ostentatious costume.
“Why, so it is, and my apologies for interrupting you,” the big man replied with a grin, snagging a chair from a nearby table and sliding it deftly up to the side of theirs. Backward, of course; he immediately sat down with his legs spread to either side of the back and arms folded across it. “But as it happens, I’ve an interest in these matters, too! Ms. Akinda and I share a mission, you see.”
“We share nothing, Rogue,” she said distastefully.
Schroeder’s eyebrows shot upward and he took a second look at the new arrival’s hat. “Rogue? As in…the adventuring class of, what, two hundred years ago?”
“A bit more modern, but yes, you might consider it an homage, as the Glassians say,” Rogue replied blithely, a doubloon appearing in his fingers. That was a really impressive trick, what with his sleeves being rolled above his elbows. It was the way he rolled the coin across the backs of his hairy knuckles, though, that caught Schroeder’s attention.
The man’s face drained of what little color it had. “Now, look here,” he stammered, “I want nothing to do…”
“Friend, let me put you at ease,” Rogue said, closing his hand around the doubloon and leaning forward over his chair back. Considering everything else about him, it was remarkable how he could suddenly project a reassuring countenance. “An honest, hard-working man such as yourself has nothing to fear from the Thieves’ Guild. Even if you won’t believe we act with a moral purpose, well…” He winked, flashing a row of flawlessly even white teeth. “No offense, old fellow, but what’ve you got that’s worth the trouble of stealing?”
Schroeder actually un-tensed slightly. That was no good; she could not allow these two to have an open conversation. A man like Rogue would immediately see right through a small-minded fool like Schroeder, and then the whole operation might be blown. So she put a little more fear into him.
“Rogue is the Thieves’ Guild Underboss for all of Madouris,” Akinda said flatly, still giving the thief an unfriendly stare. Schroeder immediately re-tensed, and then did so further when she continued. “And if I’m not mistaken, that is one of his lackeys blocking us into this bar.”
“Now, now,” Rogue said, favoring her with an amused little smile. “That’s most uncharitable, Ms. Akinda. Neither of you are prevented from leaving, you have my word of honor! Style is just insuring that we won’t be interrupted.”
“Though the next person who calls me lackey is gonna choke on their own teeth,” the beefy woman now lounging in the door with her arms crossed announced aloud. Akinda could immediately see why a man like Rogue would pick this specimen as his enforcer; she wore a hat even more ridiculous than his, a broad-brimmed Punaji number bristling with ostrich and peacock feathers. Even more ostentatious was her knee-length crushed velvet coat, jewel blue with gaudy golden embroidery, and lace visible at the neck and cuffs. It must be absolutely humiliating to get beaten up by a woman dressed like a cabaret fancy lad.
“She’s all bark,” Rogue said, grinning at them. “You have my personal guarantee of safety—the both of you,” he added directly to Akinda. “The Guild is not in the habit of molesting people who assist us.”
“Even under duress?” she snorted.
“Especially then,” he said glibly. “Now. We were discussing Falconer Industries, and its mistreatment of its employees.”
Schroeder swallowed loudly. “Oh. Um. I, uh, that is, I wouldn’t…”
“And this is why you came to me,” Akinda said disdainfully, reaching across the table to pat his wrist. “Normal, decent, working-class people are not going to want to speak with the likes of you, Rogue. It’s funny the effect a long record of violence and intimidation has on people’s disposition.”
“Yes, alas, I fear not all of that resentment is unearned,” he said with a woeful sigh, shaking his head. “I maintain that the Guild is the ally of the working man against their corrupt bosses—but you are far from wrong, Ms. Akinda. When you solve problems by breaking the fingers causing the problems, efficacious as that is, it does tend to spook people. So! Since you have so generously agreed to help us, let me put it to you!” He had the gall to grin and wink at her again, pausing to let sink in the reminder that he was extorting her into helping him. “How would you recommend we go about addressing these terrible injustices?”
Akinda played the part well, if she thought so herself—but then, it was by no means her first time on stage. She averted her eyes, staring angrily at the wall for a moment, then turned a speculative look on Schroeder just long enough for him to get good and nervous about what she was thinking, and to let it show on his face. Then she sighed softly, shot one resentful sidelong glance at Rogue, and finally lowered her eyes to the table top. The tension, at least, was real; the Underboss had handed her exactly the golden opportunity she needed, which only made her more cognizant of all the ways this could abruptly blow up in her face if she lost control.
“You can hardly burst into the factory and start bludgeoning Geoffrey Falconer,” she began by waffling. “The Duke and the Empire would come down on you hard, not to mention how that would look to the public. If you think you’re not liked now…”
“Yes,” Rogue agreed equably, “not to mention that the Falconers have a Butler. He’s not always at the factory, but they have a way of turning up when they’re needed. Have you noticed that?”
“It hasn’t really come up in my line of work,” she said bitterly, scowling at him, then looked away again and made a show of reluctance. “…I’ve been invited to examine the employee services area in detail, while it is in use. Tomorrow during the main line shift’s lunch break. Apparently most of the floor workers will be in the cafeteria then, save the maintenance crews who’ll take the opportunity to once-over the production equipment. Right?” she prompted Schroeder, who twitched.
“Um, that is, yes,” he squeaked, and Akinda had to carefully withhold contempt from her face. Pathetic twit. “That’s, uh, part of why they want to put in the second production line. You know, two shifts on rotating, um… But now, yes, everyone will be at lunch at the same time. Almost. Almost everyone.”
She patted his hand again to stop him talking.
“Interesting,” Rogue mused, raising one eyebrow. “All the employees, gathered together. But you were just saying, Ms. Akinda, that getting these folks to listen to the likes of us would be rather an uphill battle.”
“Because you are half-mythic boogeymen as far as they’re concerned,” she snapped. “Based on what Mr. Schroeder has been telling me, their fear of their bosses is far more immediate and real. If a bunch of boogeymen suddenly descended on the factory in the middle of the day…say, when the upper management are guaranteed to be there and can’t afford to act too brutally due to my presence…”
“Why, I believe I catch the drift of your thoughts!” he said, grinning. “If there is one thing we Eserites are good at, it’s frightening the mighty. Enough street soldiers on site and, Butler or no Butler, Falconer will have to give these grievances a good listen!”
“And with the Butler here,” she added pointedly, “I’ll be at least somewhat confident you people will restrain yourselves. The Falconers have a young child, Rogue. She was at the factory yesterday, and apparently often is.”
“My dear lady,” he said, suddenly solemn and holding up a hand, “not only does the Guild suffer no abuse of children, I personally make it policy among all in my chapter not to, shall we say, correct the manners of even the most deserving rich bastards where impressionable young eyes might see. The truth is,” he added earnestly, “we do a lot less kneebreaking than you think, Ms. Akinda. You think that because we work hard to encourage the misconception! The more people think we’re one hair from a bloodbath, you see, the less often we have to actually perpetrate one.”
“I suppose that does make a certain psychotic kind of sense,” Akinda huffed, turning her eyes back to the other man present. “Mr. Schroeder, you don’t look well.”
“Oh.” He actually jumped at being addressed, and swallowed heavily. “Um. No, I’m…no worries…”
In truth he didn’t look well; hopefully Rogue would put it down to nerves at the presence of a Guild Underboss at the table, though Schroeder’s reaction was a little extreme for that. The man was pale as a sheet and glistening with sweat even in the dimness of the bar. He actually looked like he was deciding whether to faint or hurl—an appropriate dilemma for a man who had just discovered that his easily-disprovable bullshit had just conjured up the presence of actual monsters and created the looming likelihood of someone getting hurt. Someone very likely to be himself.
“Why, she’s got the right of it, old man!” Rogue cried, suddenly the very picture of amicable concern. “You look half-dead! Must have been something in the beer.”
“Oh, screw you, Rogue,” the bartender said from behind him, confirming Akinda’s suspicion that this was a Guild establishment.
“I think,” the Underboss continued, ignoring the interjection, “you might want to stay home from work tomorrow.”
Akinda could have cheered. In fact, this was all going almost suspiciously well; was it possible Rogue knew what she was up to and was setting her up for a fall? She didn’t see how—either how he could know, or what he might be trying to achieve if that were the case. But with Eserites, you could never be sure. For the moment she could only play the game to the best of her ability.
“There are any number of turns tomorrow’s events might take,” she said aloud to Schroeder, in a gentler tone, “some of which might prove perilous for the man who provided valuable information to the cult of Verniselle, which was then stolen by those who do such things,” she finished in a deliberately bitter tone.
“Um. Yes, actually, now you mention it,” Schroeder said tremulously. “Perhaps…a day resting up’ll put me right.”
“Capital idea,” Rogue said pleasantly, and Akinda nodded. If Thomas Schroeder had any sense, he would be in Shaathvar by lunch tomorrow. The Rails weren’t running at this hour, but he could be in Tiraas to catch the first caravans in the morning. She would have felt a lot worse about descending upon his life and then upending it so, had he not been such a sniveling little pustule of a man. “So, then! I believe we have, at least, a place to start.”
Rogue winked at her again, and she pressed her lips into a thin, disapproving line which did not entirely have to be feigned. “Yes…so far, so good.”
That much was true. So far, so good. If it all continued to go well, this would all be wrapped up tomorrow. Of course, the fact that it had gone so well already made her distinctly apprehensive about the future. The gods made playthings of the overconfident.