Akinda wasn’t one to flatter herself, but she thought she was doing rather well considering what had been looming all morning. Her work involved a lot of interaction with rich people in general and nobles in particular, who were arguably more dangerous than Eserite street soldiers in their way. Today, though, would be her first time facing a room of Guild enforcers who were likely to end up being pissed off by what unfolded. To be uneasy at the prospect was wholly reasonable.
But her well-practiced poker face did not suffer for the unaccustomed exercise. She smiled blandly and looked skeptically aloof as an auditor should on a routine inspection while spending the morning looking over the factory’s attached mana well, where a slowly grinding magnetic generator spun infinite circles right in a major leyline nexus and conjured a steady stream of enchanting-grade dust ready to be refined into usable form. It was a pride and mainstay of Falconer Industries, and had been the elder Mr. Falconer’s original cash cow before his son turned his personal fascination with horseless carriages into an even more lucrative empire.
Geoffrey Falconer himself had decided to join her for her noon visit to the employee services center, accompanied again by his wife. This time, to her relief, their daughter was not present. Their Butler, however, was. Depending on how events unfolded, that could prove to be very good, or cause a lot of potentially messy complications.
“I mean, there are limits,” Marguerite Falconer was saying blithely while stirring a bowl of split-pea soup with her spoon. “It’s not a feast fit for the Duke’s table or anything. The factory does need to turn a profit and we’re not running a restaurant! But we do employ dedicated cooks and kitchen staff, and there are firm standards for the quality of ingredients used.”
“And you find this is cost effective?” Akinda asked mildly, taking a sip of soup. It was hard to judge its quality objectively; she hated peas. The buttered rolls were quite good, though, and it was hard to ruin tea.
“Oh, definitely,” Geoffrey said, having swallowed his own bite of ham and peas. “Tarvedh was skeptical when Margeurite first floated this, but it made sense to me from the get-go. Obviously people do better work when they’re well-fed and don’t have to worry about fetching their own meal.”
“Tarvedh was skeptical, was he?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, now,” Mr. Tarvedh blustered, “not at the principle of the thing, merely some of the particular expenditures!”
“It is in line with Vernisite practice,” Akinda said noncommittally. “Human employees are like any beast of burden in that they are most productive when properly cared for.”
A few nearby people in overalls turned to give her flat looks at that.
“You, uh, don’t often talk doctrine in front of the beasts of burden, do you?” Marguerite asked with a reproachful frown.
In fact, she did not. Akinda cleared her throat, covering her momentary lapse by wiping her mouth with a napkin. “Speaking of which, do you often eat with the laborers?”
“Oh, not most days,” Geoffrey said blithely, gesticulating with his spoon and causing his wife to snatch it from his hand before he could spray them all with droplets of broth. “But it’s nice to have this down here, just in case, you know? And one does like to keep in touch with the staff. Can’t very well stay on top of the condition of the place if we’re always hiding away in the office.”
“Truthfully he’d eat down here more, except he often forgets to eat at all,” Marguerite added, giving her husband a fondly annoyed look. He grinned at her and retrieved his spoon.
Akinda had actually never eaten at a picnic-style table surrounded by working class people on their lunch break. She liked to think she was not so snooty as to find their company objectionable in and of itself; it was hard to analyze her own emotional reaction given the constant pressure of what she knew was going to start happening any minute. Every moment that it didn’t only increased the sense of looming threat.
The Falconer’s Butler had not sat down at the table with them, which was no surprise. Suddenly, though, he shifted to look at one of the double doors into the cafeteria from the main floor—the one closer to the factory’s entrance. Then, with no sign of hurry or change in his expression, he took two steps to the left to hover in front of the Falconers.
Akinda inhaled slowly, but deeply, and set down her spoon. Showtime.
She was now listening, and so picked up the sound of a lot of feet on the stone floor outside over the general low hubbub of the cafeteria. Neither of the Falconers had noticed their Butler’s movement; he was staring at the door, and had not yet sought their attention. At the first raised voice outside, the babble of conversation at the tables began to subside. Enough that the brief sound of a scuffle was audible, followed by a wordless shout.
Geoffrey looked up, frowning deeply. “What in—”
They streamed in through the two wide doorways, two groups of four people in mismatched attire immediately planting themselves in wedge formations inside the cafeteria to secure the entries; another foursome glided swiftly to the kitchen doors where they split up to cover those. Then more slipped in around their comrades, slowly spreading to either side to cover most of the room’s front. Not all of them were visibly carrying weapons, but…enough were.
“Excuse me!” Geoffrey said, his voice a sharp crack that cut across the rising murmurs of his employees. He got to his feet and took a step forward, clearly not intimidated by the mass of scruffy people who had just invaded his factory. Marguerite remained frozen in place, clutching a spoon, her face almost white. Tarvedh looked like he might faint.
The Butler shifted with his master, not blocking his view of the enforcers or exactly hovering, but remaining close enough that no thief who recognized the uniform was likely to make a move toward Falconer.
Akinda slowly turned fully around on her bench. She let herself stiffen, let her eyes dart nervously across the ranks of Guild enforcers forming up, just as would someone who was surprised by this development.
There were close to two dozen of them. How many practicing thieves could possibly infest a given economy? This had to be a significant chunk of the Eserite population of Madouris.
“Just what the hell is going on here?” Falconer demanded, glaring.
“Now, now, now!” The ranks in front of the closer door parted and he emerged, swaggering even as he held up both his meaty hands in a placating gesture. Rogue wasn’t dressed exactly as he’d been the night before; the dashing woodsman theme was still in place, but today’s leather doublet actually had gilded embroidery and his pointy hat and blousy shirt were a deep maroon instead of forest green. By all the gods, he was wearing a cape. “Let’s everybody remain calm, shall we? I realize this must look a certain way, but you have my personal assurance that my associates and I don’t intend to so much as ruffle anyone’s hair, nor make off with even one pilfered spoon.” He came to a stop in the forefront of the line of grim-faced thugs, grinning and tucking his thumbs into his broad leather belt. “I do, however, require a few moments of your time.”
“And you are?” Falconer replied acidly. His wife sighed heavily. Akinda had to wonder whether the man was actually brave, or just too perpetually in the clouds to fully grasp the situation. Then, too, she’d met a lot of wealthy people who couldn’t quite parse the notion that bad things could happen to them, even after they were bleeding.
“You may call me Rogue!” The man swept off his insipid little hat and executed a bow elaborate enough for the Calderaan court. “I have the honor of heading your local chapter of the esteemed Guild of Thieves. And yourself, sir! May I presume you are Mr. Geoffrey Falconer?”
“Well, you don’t seem to have trouble presuming,” Falconer snorted. “If you’ve harmed my guards—”
“I’m going to have to stop you there,” Rogue interrupted, holding up one hand as the gregarious smile melted from his face. “You probably think you’re showing some spirit in front of your subordinates and lady wife, sir, but you are not the only one here with an audience. There’s a stark limit to how much backtalk I can afford to take with my own people looking on. So what say we agree to be polite to one another, whether or not either of us likes it?”
“Now you listen to—”
“Geoffrey,” Marguerite pleaded.
He hesitated, half-turned to catch her eye and hold it for a moment. Then a little of the tension seeped from the set of his shoulders and the industrialist turned back to fix his gaze on Rogue.
“Fine,” he said, folding his arms. “What do you want?”
“Well, what do any of us want, really?” the Underboss replied, spreading his arms and grinning broadly. “Peace, justice, happiness, a wholesome world for—”
“Rogue,” interrupted one of his subordinates, a thin hawk-faced woman in a long velvet coat. “You’re doing the thing again. Just because we busted into the guy’s factory doesn’t mean we gotta waste his time.”
“I am justly rebuked,” Rogue said, giving her a sidelong glance. “Right, then, to the point. What I need from you at the moment, Mr. Falconer, is forbearance. As I have said, I’ve no intention of causing any further kerfuffle here than we already have; I believe my point is made. I can get to you, Falconer, any time I so choose. You’ll have to take my word that I can do so subtly—after all, if you knew who the Guild operatives among your staff were, that would be rather missing the point, eh? But now, you are aware the Thieves’ Guild has the forces and the will to march in here at any time we like, and do…well, really, what couldn’t we do?” He winked. “After all, what would you do to stop us?”
“And?” Falconer replied with scathing disdain.
“And that is all I have to say to you, sirrah, and thank you for indulging me.” Rogue tugged the forward point of his hat politely, then raised his chin and his voice. “To everyone else present! Clearly, you value your employment too much to squander it here and now by coming forward. But now you know that your petty overlord is not the almighty tyrant he tries to seem. The working man’s lot in life is going to start improving in Madouris, as of today, and as of here. Starting now, you can be assured that any further abuses by your employer will be…” He grinned lazily, casually rolling a coin across his fingers. “…addressed. We’ll be around, never you fear.”
Akinda’s blood had gone cold, and not because she feared incipient violence—in fact, quite the contrary. Her entire strategy here counted on Rogue creating a confrontation; it had not occurred to her that he might throw down an offer of support and then leave. Did he really need to bring so many enforcers just to do this? Of course he did, she realized. Shows of force were the only language Eserites understood, and this was her fault for assuming that meant they were completely unreasonable. Between the Duke and her own cult pulling strings even Rogue couldn’t entirely be blamed for having been maneuvered into this position.
Now, she had to find a way to push this to a head or the entire endeavor would be a complete loss. And there was just no way she could see that didn’t involve exposing herself…and therefore becoming a personal target of the Guild’s vengeance.
Akinda, for the first time in a long time, froze. Was that a sacrifice she was willing to make? Was it one she should? Would the bank expect it of her, or chide her for recklessness?
And then it was abruptly taken out of her hands.
“You have got some god damn nerve!” roared a man at the next table over, shooting to his feet so suddenly he almost knocked over the bench, and the two coworkers still sitting on it. He was a burly, towering specimen even for a factory laborer, with the handy addition of an immensely bushy black beard to enhance his fearsome scowl. “You come into our factory, you threaten our boss, an’ you wanna talk to us about abuse? Fuck you Eserite pigs!”
An ugly murmur rose in the cafeteria—no, more of a growl, Akinda decided. The assembled crowd of laborers shifted, a stir running through them like a great hibernating beast twitching as it dreamed. Instantly, at least half the thieves in front of them straightened up visibly, reacting on instinct to a threat.
“Yes, yes,” Rogue said in a tone of condescending faux-mollification, “I was made aware that the bosses have their sycophants, as in every—”
“Piece of shit!” screeched another woman, surging forward from her seat the next row of tables back and almost tripping over a bench even as she leveled an accusing finger at the Underboss. “You wanna call Rajesh a sycophant? How about you come over here and do it to his face without your little posse, then?”
Far from being displeased at being thus nominated, the big Rajesh—who was one of the few men in the room physically larger than Rogue—cracked his knuckles, glaring at the Underboss. All around him, more of the employees were rising from their benches, and several had started to stalk forward to the front row of tables.
The row of thieves began inching forward, as well. It seemed that not only were street soldiers sensitive to a hostile mood, but their innate response to it wasn’t a sensible retreat. None raised weapons yet, but a few had started to finger them.
And Akinda, right on the front row of tables, was positioned between the two groups. Well, the good news was she could return to worrying about her physical safety and not her whole plan going belly-up.
“Everyone, please,” Falconer said, turning back to face his employees and finally, it seemed, starting to understand the potential danger here, “let’s not make this worse.”
Rogue was frowning, his eyes cutting back and forth across the increasingly angry crowd of factory workers. Akinda could see him doing the math. Nearly the entire room was furious, many enough to push aggressively forward, and he hadn’t even hit anyone. They reacted this way in near unanimity to having their boss merely insulted and threatened. To a man like Rogue, accustomed to both manipulating individuals and steering large groups, the evidence of Falconer’s popularity was staring him right in the face.
He fixed his gaze on Akinda, and she tried to look confused and alarmed. She wasn’t his sole source of intel on the state of this factory, but he couldn’t miss the significance of her contribution. The plan was for her to be out of the province anyway before the Guild could begin unraveling any retribution against her, but if he decided to make an issue of it here and now…
Meanwhile, the rest of the thieves were growing increasingly nervous, which in their case meant increasingly ready to fight. The cafeteria full of laborers might not be professional knuckledusters, but every one of them had the well-muscled frame of someone who did heavy labor for a living, and they outnumbered the Guild’s presence by a good five to one. If this became a brawl, it was likely to end with Madouris emptied of Eserite presence for the foreseeable future.
Apparently Rogue either bought her helpless act or decided to put off dealing with her for later. Shifting his attention back to the crowd, he raised his hands again. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please…”
“Get outta here!” a woman’s voice rang out, quickly echoed by a chorus of agreement. The growling crowd pushed a few steps farther, momentarily cutting off Akinda’s view as they shifted in front of her table. She reflexively pushed herself back against it as the sounds of scuffling broke out.
The crowd parted again, letting her see, and apparently the two fronts hadn’t clashed yet; in fact, there were a couple of matching tableaus where particularly aggressive thieves and workers were being held back by their fellows.
A roll of bread went sailing over the front ranks of the laborers, accompanied by an upsurge in the angry noise.
Rogue snatched it out of the air and took a big bite. His eyes widened in surprise. “Hey, that’s pretty good! Are these fresh? And it’s… Is that rosemary and butter?”
He pitched his voice a little too loud for a man commenting on a buttered roll, but it had the designed effect. The crowd—both crowds—calmed slightly as he carried on, studying the bread in his hand and chomping enthusiastically away.
“Well,” the Underboss said after pausing to swallow, “I’m starting to think I’ve been misinformed on a few important points. I realize we’ve already overstayed our welcome a tad, but if you’d indulge me just a moment longer—”
“Fuck off outta here!” one of the laborers yelled, igniting another angry push forward.
“Now just a minute!” Falconer shouted, himself pushing to the head of the crowd. “That’s enough of this. Everybody calm down!” He turned to stare at his employees, waiting for the muttering to subside somewhat, before returning his attention to Rogue. “What, exactly, were you misinformed about?”
The Underboss had taken another bite of the roll and was chewing while watching this scene play out, still projecting a picture of perfect calm. Akinda forced herself to breathe evenly. At least the two men in charge here had enough leadership ability to set an example to their respective groups.
Rogue swallowed and casually brushed off his fingers on his jerkin. “Now, I say this to inquire, not to accuse. Just repeating some stories I’ve been told, you understand. But on the matter of Falconer Industries employees being required to work extra hours, unpaid, and threatened with dismissal if they didn’t—”
“There is nothing like that here,” Geoffrey burst out, glaring.
“With all respect, Falconer,” Rogue replied, actually showing a little respect in his demeanor now, “that’s also what you’d say if that were going on, isn’t it? If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear from—”
“You heard the man!” interrupted another FI laborer, a short but barrel-chested man with dark Onkawi features, pushing to the front of the crowd. “This is a good job. We make the best damn carriages in the Empire and we get paid well for our work. Everybody here is proud of our company!”
The chorus of agreement was very nearly a roar.
“I see,” Rogue said, raising his bushy eyebrows in a serious expression. “And, for another example… These tales I’ve heard, of employees taking sick and their children having to step into their jobs so they don’t lose their positions?”
“Bullshit!” squawked a woman with steel-gray hair, pointing accusingly at him. “We get sick leave, we do! An’ four times a year Mr. Falconer brings a doctor in an’ everybody here gets whatever treatment he can do for whatever it is we got, on the company time. He set my daughter’s busted leg, he did, an’ she don’t even work for FI!”
Rogue, again, let his eyes flicker back and forth across the assembled factory workers while they shouted a disjointed chorus of agreement. He took another bite of buttered roll, chewing for a strategic pause while letting the noise die down somewhat. Geoffrey Falconer also waited, eyes narrowed; thankfully, so did the assembled thieves, though some of them clearly weren’t happy with the prospect.
“Well, this is awfully embarrassing,” Rogue said at last, turning to his compatriots. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say that we have been played for chumps! It looks like we’ve got no business here after all.”
“Damn right!” someone shouted from among the workers, quickly repeated by others.
“Mister Falconer,” Rogue intoned, turning around again and sweeping off his hat in another deep bow. “Assembled men and women of this esteemed establishment! You have my humble apologies for this disruption. It seems I was in error to have so accused you—truly, I am sorry to have caused you trouble. I will be taking my people and myself and getting out of your hair as swiftly as possible.”
“What about her?” The oily-looking young man who spoke was better dressed than most of the thieves in a well-fitting suit, with slicked-back hair and sharp features; he was a stranger to Akinda, but he clearly knew her, and stared accusingly. “If we’ve been misled, it’s obvious who did it.”
“It’s anything but, Thumper,” Rogue said with an ostentatious roll of his eyes. “Whatever person is right in front of you is rarely the one to blame for whatever’s on your mind, and I know we’ve had this conversation before.”
“Yeah, but she—”
Rogue turned to stare at him, and that was enough. Thumper clamped his mouth shut, scowling.
“Again, my sincere apologies,” the Underboss said to Geoffrey, holding up the half-eaten roll. “Thanks for lunch, Falconer. It’s on me, next time.”
“Hold it,” the industrialist said flatly. “After all this, you think you’re just going to walk away? I think I want to have this conversation with you and the police present.”
“Falconer,” Rogue said in a very even tone, “today you have seen the Thieves’ Guild made a fool of. That, sir, is a rare treat for anyone. Now, I truly am sorry to have unduly burdened you. I’m willing to say that I owe you a favor for the trouble—so long as it doesn’t end up being anything too unreasonable. Like, for example, that.”
“Geoffrey,” Marguerite said quietly, “let it go. They’re leaving. That’s good enough.”
Falconer folded his arms again, fixing Rogue with a stare which the thief met without flinching while his assembled enforcers began streaming out through the cafeteria doors. Rogue was the last out; he paused, tipping his hat once again, before vanishing.
Akinda let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, and felt the tension begin to leak from her body. Slowly, she turned back around on her seat, and found herself face to face with Marguerite Falconer, who was staring at her over steepled fingers.
“Why,” Marguerite asked calmly, ignoring the noise going on around them as the crowd of factory workers began expelling the pent-up tension of the encounter, “would the Thieves’ Guild blame you for their misconceptions about this company, Ms. Akinda?”
Her husband, now, was also staring at Akinda. As was Tarvedh, the Butler, and a couple of nearby laborers who had overheard.
Akinda cleared her throat. “I wonder if I could trouble you for a word in private, Mr. and Mrs. Falconer?”
“Yes,” Geoffrey said pointedly, regarding her with a decidedly unfriendly expression, “yes, I think that is a good idea.”
“With the rapid advancement of the science of enchantment has come rapid industrialization. That’s not news to you, of course,” Akinda said, nodding politely to the two Falconers once they were safely ensconced in their top-floor office. Tarvedh had not accompanied them this time, though the Butler remained discreetly by the closed door. “You have probably had reason to think about the social changes this has brought; the new industrial class are the first incidence of a rising economic power that can compete with the nobility since the first merchant guilds were formed.”
“Yes,” Marguerite said wryly, folding her arms, “Duke Madouri has made that a point of interest to us.”
“And that’s it exactly,” said Akinda. “Responses among the nobles to social change vary widely, but as a group they tend to feel threatened by anything which shifts the landscape on which their privileges rest. Some have moved to profit from the great manufacturing companies springing up within their fiefs. Others have Madouri’s attitude. You may not be aware of this, but a very old trick in the aristocracy’s perpetual maneuvers against each other is to try to trip one another into conflict with the Thieves’ Guild. That’s practically the preferred regional sport in Calderaas. Unfortunately, while the Houses are prepared to play that game, people like you are most often blindsided by it. In the last ten years, there have been several promising companies damaged and in some cases completely dismantled by the Guild over offenses which in hindsight proved to have been completely fabricated.”
“Really,” Geoffrey said, frowning. Now both of them had pensive expressions, which was an improvement over their hostile ones of a moment before.
Akinda nodded. “Eserites, like all religious people, are prone to a few predictable flaws. Once they smell corruption and abuse, they pursue it single-mindedly enough that they can easily gloss over exonerating evidence, even with the best intentions. That is the reason for my presence, and involvement. Obviously, the Guild doesn’t need outside help to investigate Falconer Industries. They do have people here already, as Rogue said. But those people are looking for weaknesses, not reasons to back off. My bank went to a great deal of trouble to give Rogue the impression that he could use me to ferret out your secrets, and arranged for him to acquire falsified evidence of some trumped-up crimes on my part. He believes he is blackmailing me into complying with his efforts here.”
“You’re telling me,” Geoffrey said flatly, “that Duke Madouri manipulated the Thieves’ Guild into attacking my factory.”
“Yes,” she said. “And the Vernisite bank in Madouris, which had been watching for such activity, warned central bank in Tiraas, which sent me. My assignment was to re-direct the Guild’s efforts.”
“You couldn’t just warn them?” Marguerite demanded.
“They don’t listen to bankers,” Akinda replied, shaking her head. “Our relationship with the Guild is rather one-sided. We find them an extremely useful measure against corruption, even within our own ranks—but that only works so long as they keep us at arm’s length, so we deliberately make no effort to cozy up to them.”
“And you couldn’t warn us?” Geoffrey snapped.
“For that, I apologize,” she said, inclining her head. “It’s policy. We tried that, early on; the effect was, consistently, industrialists taking aggressive measures either against the Thieves’ Guild or their noble tormentors, with predictably disastrous results.”
“I can’t believe anyone would do something that stupid,” he huffed.
“Yes, you can,” Marguerite said with a sigh. “You almost did it not ten minutes ago, Geoffrey. Don’t make that face, you were that close to throwing a punch at that guy and you know it.”
“Now,” Akinda said, “the Guild knows better than to attack you. Rogue has been embarrassed and will look into his sources of information with greater care. He will find details my bank has planted revealing the source of Madouri’s original misdirections, and turn his anger on the Duke. Madouri will bleed for this, and hopefully not try it again. Most importantly, his reprisal will come from the Thieves’ Guild and not from Falconer Industries, giving him no pretext to punish you.”
They stared at her, then turned to each other and shared a silent married conversation. Then turned back to her, still staring.
Akinda cleared her throat discreetly. “Needless to say, the bank regrets the imposition, and greatly appreciates your role in this affair, unwitting as it was. This has been a success for everyone—Falconer Industries, the bank, even the Thieves’ Guild. Well, everyone except Duke Madouri, who is soon to be given a lesson in not antagonizing Eserites. This ostensible audit was a formality anyway; FI is an excellent company and has been consistently a valued business partner. Your loan is approved, at twenty-five percent above the asked amount.”
“No.” Geoffrey Falconer stepped closer to her, staring right into her eyes. His wife remained behind, and matched his glare.
“No?” Akinda raised an eyebrow.
“We’ll take the amount originally applied for,” he stated. “And we will take it at zero interest, with no defined term of repayment.”
Akinda could only gape at him for a moment.
“Ah. Mr. Falconer, the bank of course wishes to accommodate you under the circumstances, but not to the extent of obviating the reason we give loans.”
“Tough,” he said flatly. “You can tell this to your bank, Akinda: I don’t need more money from you, I need you to walk away with your knuckles stinging. This scheme of yours came within a hair’s breadth of setting Thieves’ Guild brawlers on my employees. Omnu’s breath, my daughter could have been here. You will hurt for this, is that understood? If the bank will not accept my terms—or if you ever again put any of my people in danger for any reason—I will go right to the Duke, to the Guild… The Empire, the Universal Church, the Sisterhood of Avei, everyone I can think of who even might take exception to a Pantheon cult engaging in this kind of chicanery. I know very well that I’m not a sly manipulator like your masters, Akinda. But I have money, I have magic, and I am pissed off. I’m willing to bet that by the time I get finished throwing blind punches, you’ll have lost a lot more than the interest you would’ve made off this loan. Am I understood?”
He met her gaze in silence after finishing, waiting for her to answer. Akinda stared back, then shifted her eyes to look behind him at his wife. Marguerite raised on eyebrow at her.
“Well,” she said at last, “obviously, I cannot personally authorize such a measure. But I will convey your, ah, terms to the bank. And,” she added, “I will encourage them in the firmest language possible to take your offer, Mr. Falconer. In this particular situation, I am reasonably confident I can persuade the bank to agree.”
“Good.” He turned his back on her and walked back to his wife, who took his hand with an expression of pride. “Then I bid you good day, Ms. Akinda. This audit is concluded.”
She bowed, just for good measure, then turned and walked out, the Butler opening the office door for her. Outside the office, Akinda allowed herself a soft sigh of relief.
Not the outcome she’d gone in looking for, or expecting, but…one she would accept. A hoarder had been thwarted, the bank could continue doing business, and the company would thrive.
It must flow. And for now, at least, it would.