[Sir Lanka Files 06] The Guild

Continued from …

The Thieves Guild offices always reminded DaVic of a fake scholar — there was always a lot of activity on the outside, but nothing of substance happened on the inside.

People thronged outside the offices like ants to a picnic. As usual, nobody seemed to understand the concept of a queue — everybody was pushing each other out of the way to get there first. There were scuffles, angry looks, shouts, the occasional scream from somebody who had their foot trodden on … in fact, the general chaos of any bureaucratic institution in Sir Lanka.

And that’s what the Guild had become over the years — a bureaucratic institution.

It had started out as something totally different. In the old days, before the great wars, they said that the Guild had been composed of people elected by the people. They were supposed to govern the people according to their wishes — a government of the people, for the people, by the people.

But as often happens, the elected individuals had started to govern to server their own needs and not those of the people — a government of elites, in it for themselves. Eventually, the people grew tired of this and raised their voices against their elected representatives, calling for changes to the system. But the representatives, being well-versed in the ways of politics, hid behind the laws of the land. Or, when the laws didn’t suit them, changed the laws to protect them.

In the end, the people getting really tired of being oppressed, rose up against their government. The revolution was long and bloody. The populace drove out their lawmakers and opted to do away with the “of the people” part and to rule themselves collectively — no more representatives in the middle to gum up the works.

But of course, that never works. In fact, they now had an axiom — named Ambdon’s Law — which said, “Any sufficiently large group of people will always work against their own interests.”

And that was exactly what had happened — sub groups sprang up amidst the government of citizens and each group wanted to go in a different way. Some wanted wealth for all. Others, an agrarian society. Yet others wanted to sell parts of the island to foreign nations and live off the wealth for the rest of their lives.

In the end, the people’s revolution ended in a counter-revolution where the main revolutionaries were despatched in as bloody a fashion as the former rulers.

A new power vacuum was born and into this vacuum stepped in the original elected representatives and their descendants. They organized local societies which were supposed to help each area govern itself.

At first, these societies seemed to work. But as is the case generally, when people establish powerbases, they tend to lean more toward autocracy than democracy. The societies slowly became guilds. Their main role became oppression of the people rather than helping them.

People get used to almost anything as long as their general life is comfortable enough. So this gradual transition went almost unnoticed and people actually praised the Guilds for how efficiently they ran things and for keeping things stable and on an even keel.

The Thieves Guild stole from the people but it was very organized stealing — they would come to your house, inspect it for valuables, send somebody in the night to steal the most valuable stuff, and then leave a receipt. You had to produce the receipt at the Guild offices, pay the amount specified, and get your goods back. It was all orderly, legal, and civilized.

People didn’t have to hunt high and low for the criminals. They didn’t have to deal with the police, and they didn’t have to worry about replacement costs for the stolen items. Of course, they didn’t realize that over time the same item might be stolen multiple times and that they paid many times the cost of the item to get it back from the guild. But that’s people for you — always interested in quick gains in the present, and not worried at all about the long-term impact of things. Live for today, for you may not see tomorrow.

DaVic barely glanced at the squirming mass of people pushing at, and against, each other outside the main door. Instead he simply headed around the side of the building to a locked door. He tapped three times in quick succession on the door, waited for a few beats and then rapped again three times, but this time much slower. Then he waited.

After a moment the door opened and a head poked out. [Well, not just a head mind you, there was a body attached to it — this wasn’t the Assassins Guild after all. But all that DaVic could really see was the head.]

“What do you want?”

“Is JaPok around?”

The person closed the door without a word, no explanations. DaVic knew the routine. He simply waited.

After a while, the door opened again and the round, bearded face of JaPok appeared, peering near-sightedly.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said after a few moments of peering.

“Yep, got a job.”

“Really? What, a wife wants her cheating husband to have his favourite hovercar stolen?”

“Nope, this is different.”

JaPok seemed to considere this for a moment, as if wondering if DaVic was telling him the truth. He finally opened the door wider and stepped back.

“Well, come on in then and tell me all about it.”

JaPok was a short, rotund man dressed in the standard Guild attire — black pants and black shirt with an insignia on his left breast indicating his rank. They said that the Guild wore black because it made it easier for them to blend into the night, but given that they stole openly these days, DaVic suspected that it was just adherence to old customs that they just didn’t want to give up. “Or, the black just hid dirt and stains better,” suggested his inner voice.

DaVic pushed past JaPok and started walking down a narrow corridor that he’d used many times before when visiting the Guild. He knew that JaPok would follow him once he’d locked and double-checked the door — the Guild were very careful about that sort of thing. They didn’t want to have any stories about the Guild being robbed floating around. In fact, if somebody dared rob the Guild, it would probably be the offender who’d be found floating around, face down, in the river.

“So what’s the job?” asked JaPok, hurrying up behind him.

“I have a client who’s got an inspection request. They’d rather not go through the hassles of an inspection and would like to have an inspection completion report entered into the system …”

“Hmm …” said JaPok, “I guess your client has deep pockets? Also, what sort of business are they in?”

DaVic could almost see the wheels turning in JaPok’s head. He was wondering what shady deals DaVic’s client might be involved in and how much he could ask for in return for completing the inspection report.

DaVic considered his options. If he hedged too much, JaPok was going to get suspicious and raise his fee. On the other hand, if he gave in too easy, he might think that money was not an object and try to squeeze him for more money.

He decided to lead with the truth — or at least, as much of it as he wanted to share.

“You know that new funeral place that opened on Yamarajapura Street?”

“No. Have they been around for long?”

“Not too long, possibly a few months.”

“Ah, I guess their business must be taking off. That’s usually when we send in an inspection notice.”

“Yeah, they’re doing OK. But here’s the thing, they have this new technology. They apparently freeze bodies and then break them down into powder.”

“Freeze? Like put them in big freezers or something?” asked JaPok, sounding interested.

“No. This is different, they apparently dip them in some chemical solution or something …”

“Ah, so they must have some fancy equipment, eh?”

DaVic could almost hear the cash registers going off in JaPok’s head and the calculators clacking at extra speed as he computed how much a business like that might be worth.

“Yes, I guess the equipment might be worth a bit, but what they are worried about is their trade secrets. They don’t want anybody else learning about their process …”

“You know we don’t do that kind of thing. We are honest thieves and everybody knows it. We only steal movable items. Trade secrets are strictly off-limits.”

“I know … I know … But try explaining to them! They’re very secretive about what they do, and they are willing to pay to keep their secrets. So who am I to deny them peace of mind?” asked DaVic, giving JaPok a conspiratorial wink.

By this time, they had walked into the main chamber of the Guild office. It was a huge chamber with what looked like hundreds of cubicles. One would have thought that with such a huge place and so many cubicles, the place would be humming with activity.

But one would think that only if one didn’t know Sir Lankan bureaucrats. In fact, there wasn’t much activity in the place at all. Sure there were a few cubicles where citizens were talking to clerks. But most of the cubicle occupants were either napping, gossipping, or involved in other personal tasks.

DaVic knew that this was par for the course. Most of the Guild bureaucrats were either friends, family members, or friends of friends of Guild higher ups. If you wanted to get a cushy job where you were set for life, all you needed was to know (or be related to) somebody in a Guild. Being qualified was optional, and actually getting any work done wasn’t ever a requirement.

JaPok walked over to his cubicle, sat down behind his desk, and waved DaVic to the seat on the other side of the desk. DaVic had just sat down and was about to resume the haggling over the fee for the service that JaPok was to provide, when there was a commotion behind him.

“That’s him! Grab him! Quick!” said somebody.

DaVic jumped out of his seat like a startled cat and tried to whirl around quickly, but got entangled in the seat and fell flat on his face like a wet pancake hitting the dusty floor.

Continued in …

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