A Shadow Among Men, Pt. 1: Seeds of Sedition
I absently adjust the three rings on my right hand, lingering on the one enclosing my thumb. I refocus my attention to the table where eight of the region’s most powerful people surround me. Our discussion halted ten minutes ago and fell into a violent tirade of icy and accusatory stares. No words are needed when a look will say everything.
I clear my throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s please move forward. We’re not getting anything done this way.”
An uncomfortable shifting in seats catches like a brush fire. I see the strain in their eyes. We’re trying to come to an understanding over something that feels impossible.
“President Sidar, you’re proposing something which goes against much of what our guild has believed for decades.”
“I understand this.” I nod once, attempting to add finality to my statement.
In my periphery, I see one of the women presidents fiddle with the bracelet on her arm. She gracefully takes it off and sets it on the table. I keep my eyes on the man who challenged me moments ago. He meets my gaze with iron determination.
“There’s a reason our factories have been the kingdom’s most efficient for thirty-two years,” he continues. “We have the most output of any other guild. We get the most results.”
I relax my tensed hand as the thumb ring goes from hot to cool.
“We also have the most deaths of any other guild,” a president sitting across the table counters. He has a small, square face. If he stood now, the table would come only to his chest. I believe his name is Travor. “Workers aren’t much good when they’re dead, are they?”
“Since when has that affected us?” weighs in another president. He and the challenger from earlier stand the most firm against reform for the factories within our guild. They stand to be hurt the most from putting forth effort to give workers a better working climate. “We’ve never given thought to this before now. Why--”
“The six other times in the past ten years don’t count?”
The bracelet fights to catch hold of my attention, appearing to glow faintly on the table. No one else notices. The lady who placed it there intentionally avoids my eye contact. I see her peering at one of the four mirrored walls. I glance to the wall directly behind her--the one to my right--and study its sheen surface reflecting the tense moment, catching the unnoticed glow of the bracelet.
“Those were feeble attempts to throw off a tradition that--”
“Mr. Cesna, I would hardly call this a tradition.” All eyes turn toward the lady with the bracelet before her. President Felnai, a commander of attention, knows she is one of the most influential power-players in the kingdom, and she often uses that to her advantage. She has spoken very little to this point in the meeting. All nine of us hang on her every word as she will directly affect the outcome by whatever she says. A fact she relishes as she leans back in her chair.
Cesna tries to look unaffected by her confidence. He fails. I look between he and his counterpart, Linae, the opponents to the proposed guild reform. Linae returns my gaze causing me to look away, unable to hold it for long.
“Workers across our region,” Felnai continues, “are openly disapproving of the status of our factory environments. Surely you’re aware of this.”
“Of course we are, but--”
“You’re prepared to ignore this fact? Are your advisors telling you this to be an intelligent course of action, or is this something you two have contrived on your own?”
Silence follows. One of them eventually stammers a reply but I miss it. I make another glance toward the mirrored wall, this one to my left. I see President Felnai’s calm eyes staring down her opponent. The reflection, however, doesn’t match the woman in the chair. I don’t have to look to the mirror on the opposite wall to know that two of its reflections don’t match either.
Cesna leans forward in his chair. “You really think this is going to work? You think these other intelligent Presidents are going to fall for this ploy?”
I hear murmuring to my left. Felnai remains as calm as ever, quietly sliding the bracelet back on her arm. I clear my throat to avoid any sound of nerves. “President Felnai and I are prepared to begin paying our workers.”
One would think the two men at the opposite end of the table had been dragged through the streets as fools. Both look shocked, angry, confused. Threatened. Such an open declaration from two presidents took them by surprise. When Travor adds his support, they actually look worried. If the majority of the guild aligns themselves with this groundbreaking ideal, then the entire guild must follow. It would change the entire landscape of the region.
Cesna’s rants no longer matter as three more votes side with the reformation--two from my left and one from my right. The final count is six to three in favor of reform. I hold back a knowing grin as spittle flies from the irate Linae. I need to get out of this room.
“You’re a fool, Sidar!”
I nod once at him and stand slowly, being sure to look nervous. The doors open behind me and allow six of us to exit into a giant auditorium full of people. Our little meeting was watched by this audience through the one-sided mirrors. The crowds are chaotic and converging upon the conference room. The decision--as was predicted--reached mixed reviews.
My aid appears at my side, guiding me toward the rear of the building where my car awaits. Though the crowd presses against us, I see the other presidents being taken toward their rides. I make a mental note of the ones angling toward me--three from the left, one on the right. I’m five. Two aids, and two scouts...everyone is accounted for.
“We had a situation while you were in there, sir.”
I continue to scan the surrounding crowd, crunching numbers, filing faces. My aid strains to keep up with my quickening gait. “What kind of situation?”
“Jothe caught a man trying to--”
Sixty seconds until departure; one hundred-thirty until the rendezvous. “Bring him to me. You have forty-nine seconds, Nothani.”
She nods in affirmation. Handing me the glowing broach which hung from her collar seconds ago, she ducks into the crowd and disappears. I reach my silver car, driver ready. I tell him to wait half a minute and check both of the back seat windows to see that the other presidents reached their cars. Rendezvous in ninety-three seconds.
Nothani soon opens one of the doors and slides in with the man she mentioned before leaving. His face reveals uncertainty. Reminding myself I no longer have to appear nervous, I return to my confident calm demeanor.
“President Sidar, I can explain. I--” My chuckle cuts him off, adding to his shaken countenance. The warm broach enveloped by my hand suddenly begins to cool. As a result, I watch the man’s face wrinkle first in confusion and then in fear as he stares at my face. I remove the simple white mask with holes cut out for my eyes, revealing my natural dark complexion. “You’re not...you’re not the president?”
I can’t help but smile. “Bryson, why aren’t we moving? Fifty seconds until rendezvous.”
The man looks between me and the woman who played my aid moments ago, fear now completely smothering his features. “But how? What? Why did you...? What is the meaning of this?”
“We just changed history, sir.” My voice is cool, collected. I keep the smile.
“Who are you?”
“Sir, you just witnessed the expertise of my team. You’ve never seen us because we’ve never truly shown our faces. You’ve never heard of us because we technically don’t exist. I’m not President Sidar, no. My name is Rahuul.”