Chapter 26: All Brokered Out
“Knowing where the enemy is makes a difference. Knowing where the enemy will be makes all the difference.”
-General Tarucarus, 111 U.E.
Stephan stepped into the bar with a heavy sigh, shouldering the door closed behind him. Sweat beaded down his lower back.
Amaline stood before the bar, a broom clutched in both hands. Aegur the cat rested on top of it. Both watched him intently.
“Well?” Amaline asked. “How did it go?”
Stephan couldn’t help but crack a tired grin. “You’re looking at an information broker protected by all three Tumbani gangs, but beholden to none of them.”
“Then… it was enough?”
“It was enough. As long as I keep bringing them useful information.”
Amaline let the broom fall and clapped her hands together. “Yay! You did it, boss!”
A second later, she had her arms around his neck, squeezing him tight into her pillowy bosoms. He endured it, clapping her on the back, and drew in a sharp breath once she pulled back.
I suppose commendations are in order, Aegur muttered reluctantly. Using his mental prowess, the cat made three glasses hover onto the countertop with a clink. He poured whiskey into two of them, and apple juice into the third for Amaline.
They sat around the bar, toasted, and drank. Amaline sipped her juice with feigned importance, making faces as though it was truly strong stuff.
So… what now? Aegur asked. Those lowlifes will stay out of your business from now on. So, what is the next move?
“I’m thinking I’ll need to expand our operations a bit,” Stephan said. He swept his whiskey, gritting his teeth as it burned down his throat. “Both to keep the gangs happy, and to track down my daughter. For that, I need more eyes and ears. I’ll get started tonight.”
“Tonight?” Amaline asked. “Come on, boss. I know you want to find Yin, but it’s already late. Besides, we have celebratin’ to do!”
“I’ll celebrate once she’s back.”
“Just one night. C’monnn. You saw that letter she sent you. Wherever she is, she’s safe. Besides, she’s a badass. You can afford to take your mind off it for a few hours.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
Amaline was already pulling him onto his feet. “Then let’s go, boss! We’re hitting the town!”
Stephan let himself be dragged to the door. Aegur followed with languid disinterest, hopping to the floor.
“Where are we going, exactly?” Stephan asked, eyeing the darkened street ahead with some suspicion.
“Wouldn’t you like to know, party boy?” Amaline said with a shrewd grin. She held up the lead with confident strides, Aegur padding just behind her. “I know a place that has the best pizza. I think they’re still open.”
“I could go for a pizza, sure.”
I do not enjoy such things, Aegur said. The cheese. The grease. No thank you. He shuddered and wandered on.
“You’re describing all the best parts,” Amaline said. “Anyway, I’m sure they have a can of tuna or something they can crack open for you.”
Stephan tuned out of the conversation as they approached a square with a large gathering of people crammed inside. It was lit up with bands of magelights pulled tight between the buildings. A man stood in the center atop a large box, elevated above everyone else. He was afforded a wide berth thanks to four of the governor’s home guard, who kept everyone else at bay.
“…And while his heart goes out to those who have been affected by the Concordian blockade, including the crews who have recently lost their lives, Governor Orelius Chaesim does not accept responsibility for these acts of violence, nor will he reimburse any crew for loss of profits.”
Predictably, the crowd wasn’t too happy with that. A chorus of angry voices echoed through the square, and they pushed harder against the home guard, forcing them back.
“Looks like trouble,” Amaline said. She tugged at Stephan’s sleeve. “I know another way, boss. C’mon. Let’s skip this nonsense.”
“No,” Stephan said, waving her aside. “I want to see this.”
“In this time of strife, we must stand together!” shouted the envoy, struggling to be heard over the riled masses. He glanced intermittently at his prepared notes, papers shaking as he gripped them in both hands. “Orelius Chaesim understands your concerns, and he is working tirelessly with the other governors to expel the invaders from our islands!”
“Stand together? What a joke!” cried one of the citizens. “Chaesim’s gonna huddle in that old fort until we’re all dead and rotted away! He doesn’t give a shit about us!”
Others voiced their agreement with his sentiment. A few of the more overzealous ones began throwing debris at the envoy and his protection. The home guard raised loaded rifles in response. Two fired into the air, sharp gunfire cracks sending the closest malcontents scrambling away.
In return, the citizens drew their own weapons, pistols and knives and all sorts. This was going to end badly.
“Stay here,” Stephan said, holding up a hand towards Amaline.
“I’ll be back.”
He shouldered through the crowd, pushing aside a muscled thug and worming around a sweat-slick prostitute. Gunshots rang out, and one of the home guard toppled over, screaming, clutching at a bad graze in his side. The Tumbani citizens surged, smelling blood.
Stephan picked up the pace, breaking into a run. Someone slammed into his back, and he nearly fell, but somehow he stumbled his way to the front of the pack. Bullets whizzed around his ears as he skidded to a stop and spun around, arms out.
“That’s enough!” Stephan called at the top of his lungs. Staring down two dozen hardened roughs, it was impossible to keep a tremble from his voice.
Yet there must have been some kind of authority in his voice, because a few of them stopped in their tracks, weapons hesitantly inching lower.
One of the malcontents, an unusually large lubbard with muscled arms, stepped forward to face Stephan. He wound up his arm for a backhand slap. “Fuck out of my way, prissy little shit,” he hissed.
A home guard raised his rifle to shoot him dead. Without looking, Stephan slapped the weapon aside. He stared down the lubbard, trying his best not to blink. He didn’t intend to lose this game of chicken.
The lubbard moved. Before he could touch Stephan, two of his compatriots caught hold of his arms and hauled him back.
“Don’t you know who that is?” one of them said. “That’s the Gentleman.”
“Someone you don’t mess with, that’s who.”
Stephan scanned over the crowd. Weapons were stowed away, albeit with some whinging. With an insistent gesture, he compelled the home guard to do the same. Lastly, he caught the shivering envoy by his collar and yanked him none-too-kindly off his improvised podium, taking his place. Looking out across a microcosm of the Tumbani people, he took a deep breath.
“Chaesim’s trying to make it sound like he knows what he’s doing,” Stephan spoke. The voices in the square quieted to indistinct murmurs. “You’re not buying it. Having lived here all your lives, you’ve learned to see through a scam. And you’re all spot on—the governor is full of shit.”
The envoy turned on Stephan, face reddening, and opened his mouth to speak.
“Shut the fuck up, please,” Stephan said, putting a finger in the man’s face. “I’m talking now.” He returned his focus to the crowd. Their faces were less suspicious, now. More expectant. “The truth is, right now, none of us know what we’re doing. The Concord’s got its grubby hands wrapped around our throats. There’s no last hope. No shining hero. Just… making do. Day to day.”
“What about Wenezian?” one woman cried. “She beat the Concordians, once. What says she can’t do it again?”
“You were on her crew!” a young man said. “Where is she now? Has she turned coat like everyone else?”
Stephan opened his mouth, hesitated, closed it again. The truth wouldn’t do. Neither would a lie.
The people of Tumba needed something. He couldn’t extinguish this, the blazing symbol of their defiance, too.
He had an idea.
An awful, brilliant, audacious scheme.
Stephan crouched down and waved the crowd closer, forcing the ones in front to lean in. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “You didn’t hear this from me, okay? None of you can pass it on. Promise me, yeah?”
A few nodded sheepishly.
“I spoke to Wenezian a few days ago. She’s been keeping a low profile because she’s planning something big.”
“Big?” someone asked. The lubbard from before, rage replaced with genuine curiosity. “What do you mean, big?”
Stephan grinned. “I mean big. Getting the Concordians to fuck off our lawn kinda big. Now, I’m not supposed to be telling you this, so make sure you keep quiet about it.”
“What’s she planning?” a street urchin asked, dirty face shining with hope. “What will she do?”
Stephan shook his head and rose. “That’s all I can say. This is over! Everyone, go back to your homes!”
People were reluctant to leave, shouting questions over each other. The home guard helped him get them going, slowly and reluctantly filing out of the square. After a few minutes, it was empty, and Stephan heaved a sigh.
Codes, what did I just set in motion?
“What was all that?” the envoy asked, as if to echo his sentiment. “You were pulling all that stuff out of thin air, weren’t you?”
Stephan didn’t deign to answer as he stepped off the wooden box.
“I hope for your sake that you didn’t. The only thing the people of Tumba hate more than vague politicking is broken promises.”
“Let me worry about that. Say, are you interested in making a few extra bucks?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Stephan took out his focus and siphoned a few hundred glints. He handed the money to the envoy, glowing cubes clattering together in the man’s outstretched hands. “If the governor decides to make any more announcements like this, let me know in advance. Consider this an advance.”
The envoy hesitated and glanced around at the guards, but they were busy helping their injured comrade. He slowly nodded.