The Guild of Swordsmen: Part 4
The conspirators were all upstairs, six of them, in a small stuffy room smelling of sweat, dry rot, and kerosene. Three blazing lanterns provided plenty of light. Merolliay hoped that the gap under the creaking door was letting in enough fresh air to keep everyone from passing out.
“Took you long enough!” Filipe growled in Libanian from one end of a dusty couch. “What’d you do, stick it in every tavern girl from Kulkarni District to here?”
Merolliay gave him a tight smile and sat down in the seat they left for him on the other end of the couch. He took the wine they’d poured for him too: a well-aged Ortellay from the steep slopes north of Liban. Refusing to drink anything except Libanian wine at their meetings was a point of pride for these men.
“Enough of that, Filipe,” Sharolen said. “We’re here for a reason.” He took a sheet of paper from the satchel at his feet and laid it on the low table that they were all using for their drinks. “You’re a swordsman,” he said, addressing Merolliay. “No doubt you’ve seen or heard of this.”
Merolliay stared, recognizing a copy of the same broadsheet Alzadin had brought back from the pastry shop yesterday morning. The one advertising a chance to try for a place in the Imperial Guard.
“He’s speechless,” Filipe said. “Which means either he has seen it, or he hasn’t. Hard to tell with our Merolliay here.”
“I’ve seen it,” Merolliay said.
“Well?” said Sharolen.
“Well, what?” Merolliay retorted.
Sharolen, angered, opened his mouth to speak but Filipe cut him off. “You know what, Mero. Your Guild. Twenty new swordsmen for the Imperial Guard and the Guild of Swordsmen grants Guild membership to each one. What if some don’t want Guild membership?”
Merolliay set his wineglass on the table, surprised to hear his own concerns hinted at by these men. “I assume those swordsmen won’t enter the contest. Since the contest rules are clear about Guild membership being one of the prizes.”
“So anyone who doesn’t want to be in a Guild better not try to get into the Imperial Guard through this contest, is that it?” Filipe used a fork to sharply stab a chunk of sweating cheese on the tray between them as if the cheese were responsible for the contest rules. “How long before Guild membership is a ‘prize’ no matter how they qualify for the Imperial Guard? How long before the only thing you can do without joining a Guild is work in a factory or a mine?” Filipe was the only man in the room who had not joined a Guild; but there was no Guild of University Professors for him to join. Not yet.
Tierry shifted on his perch on the high three-legged stool across from them. “I have heard from multiple sources that the Guild of Yogurt-Sellers has been harassing independent vendors who can’t afford membership dues.”
That might explain the sudden absence of the stooped little Kulkarni man from whom Lida used to buy yogurt at the edge of the park near their house. “I have heard similar stories about the Distillers’ Guild,” Merolliay admitted, remembering what Zuvius in the Kavanian District had told them about the old man and his fruit brandy.
“They don’t allow women in the Guilds either,” Filipe said, “so even if some widow with a goat wants to sell extra yogurt to her neighbors and can afford to join, they won’t let her.”
“It’s a problem,” Sharolen said, “and not only for Libanians who don’t want their dues money going to fund pagan temples.” He glanced at Filipe. “It’s a problem for all ordinary men and women living in the City. They’re being forced out of their professions into factories and other menial jobs. Long hours, low wages, and no chance for a better life.”
Merolliay shook his head. Filipe taught Engineering at the Imperial University but none of these other men ever left the Libanian District except to attend these secret meetings, shop for cloth and spices, or participate in political rallies. They were drunk on the fantasy that all subject people of the Empire suffered in bondage, waiting for the purity of Libanian atheism and the Libanian message of the equality of all men to liberate them. He’d have liked to see his countrymen try to start an anti-Imperial political rally among the oppressed Kavanian factory workers from last night.
“I’m not trying to argue that it isn’t a problem,” Merolliay said. “But I’m not sure what you want me to do about it.”
The other six men exchanged glances as if they couldn’t agree on whose responsibility it was to answer him. Eventually, Sharolen spoke up. “Our thought is that the contest might be an excellent opportunity for you to introduce a person whom you can look upon as an ally into the Imperial Palace.”
Merolliay stared at him. “How, exactly, am I to ‘introduce a person’ into the Imperial Palace? I assume you read the part about it being a contest of arms.” He didn’t understand what Sharolen’s suggestion had to do with people being forced out of their professions due to tighter Guild control.
“We realize that the candidate would have to earn a position in the Imperial Guard by his or her own skill,” Sharolen said.
Merolliay froze. Oh, no, he thought. Absolutely not.
“However,” Sharolen continued, “you might have a colleague who trusts your advice and who you think might be useful to you. If they could be stationed inside the palace.”
“‘Useful to me,’” Merolliay repeated.
“A colleague who would be willing to take an oath of allegiance to the Emperor, of course,” Sharolen continued unfazed.
“But remain loyal to me,” Merolliay said. “Someone who’s willing to swear falsely.”
Sharolen glowered at him. Filipe chuckled.
“Yes,” Filipe said, “and if that colleague happened to be a woman, to set a precedent that women should be permitted to join the Guilds–”
“I know what he’s digging for,” Merolliay said, “and the answer is no.” If they thought Lida was willing to swear a false oath, they were fools. Not that that was his only consideration here.
“Surely you have some influence with Lida Dareshna,” Sharolen said.
Possibly not after last night. “I have no intention,” Merolliay said, “of attempting to convince Lady Dareshna to compete for a place in the Imperial Guard. My friends are not game pieces in your misguided plot to overthrow the Emperor.” Nor am I, he wanted to say, angered by their latest attempt to manipulate him with their speeches about the plight of the working class. Perhaps it would have angered him less had any of these men actually belonged to the working class.
“Shove it up your ass, Mero!” Filipe retorted. “Along with that stick you’ve already got shoved up there. You have a responsibility to your own people.”
Who are my people? Merolliay wondered. There was no one in this room whose company he preferred to that of Alzadin, Saulius, or even Lida. No one he trusted to watch his back in a treacherous situation.
Filipe wasn’t finished. “This is going to spread throughout the Empire, these Guilds taking over everything. It’ll come to that even back home in Liban. You don’t get a choice about using people as game pieces, Mero, Lion of the West. All the western kingdoms that the Nemesde Empire has tried to subjugate look to you to give them hope and all you want to do is hide out in the ass-end of the city and play at being a hired sword.”
Merolliay thought of the Kavanian District, of the man in the cellar tavern. “Burn in hell, Libanian!” he had spat across the table. “All you godless atheists, I hope your city falls into the sea.” Merolliay didn’t think that westerner had been looking to him for hope.
He stood up. “Don’t complain to me about the Guilds taking over everything and then try to ride on the coattails of their latest scheme.” He still wasn’t entirely convinced that the contest was a Guild scheme, but these men all seemed to believe it was. He locked eyes with each of them in turn: with Tierry, a member of the powerful Silk Weavers’ Guild. With Sharolen of the Founders’ Guild, owner of a foundry that supplied cannon bodies to an Imperial Army he professed to hate. With Remy, Vierre, and Zhiell, all of artisan guilds that allowed them to practice the trades of their fathers and earn enough to live comfortably and send their children to the Imperial University. Even Filipe, who had never had to choose whether to pay dues that might be used to fund superstitions, or give up his profession and take menial employment.
“Lion of the West,” Merolliay said, his voice venomous with scorn. “We all know what that title is worth. I remember you and my father, Filipe, laughing at the latest ambassador come begging my family to lead them against the Emperor.” Perhaps if they’d taken those appeals as seriously as the Empire had, Merolliay’s father would still be alive today. And Merolliay would be in Liban where he belonged instead of an exile in an unfriendly city fifteen hundred miles from home.
“If my title does mean anything, then one thing I do not have is the responsibility to be used as your game piece. If I’m the Lion of the West, you take orders from me.”
He had expected anger or indignation at his audacity, suggesting that he should have the right to command men older and better-educated based on some half-remembered mythology about his ancestors. He had not expected the shrewd, appraising look Filipe gave him.
“I probably would take orders from you, Mero, if you gave them,” the older man said. “Are you the Lion of the West?”
They were all giving him that look now, every one of them. Men old enough to have brought gifts to his birth celebration.
He backed away, towards the door.
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not.”