Chapter 199: Unbalanced EncountersAlexandra Erin on January 29, 2014 in Volume 2 Book 6: Career Counseling, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Makes Her Case
While Steff seemed to view all talk about the future like some sort of unavoidable pit of doom, I found that contemplating future pitfalls just firmed up my convictions about what kind of a life I wanted to live.
I still didn’t have a plan, exactly, but my goals were getting clearer, and it would be easier to chart a course if I knew the destination. The freedom and money to travel were definitely big on my list. Talking with Steff had put the idea into my head, and the stuff that happened after we were done talking had convinced me to keep it.
Well, the only way to plan for an uncertain future was to shape it myself, then making sure I got paid for whatever work I did now was a good first step. Assuming that Acantha’s project was at all on the level, then participating in it was another step. I wouldn’t do it just for the experience or the exposure or networking opportunities, but if I could sure I’d be paid then they would be a nice potential bonus.
I needed to present my terms to Acantha before her next get-together, so I wouldn’t be any more invested in what she was doing if I needed to walk away. At the same time, I didn’t want to feel rushed in a negotiation, which I would be if I tried talking to her before or after class. Also, her classroom mode was so stiff and practiced.
I needed her to be flexible, with her guard down… though that makes it sound like I was planning on ambushing her. It was more that I didn’t want her to be on the defensive, so she wouldn’t react to my proposal like it was an ambush. So, I made an appointment to see her in her borrowed office during my afternoon break. It was short notice, but I’d had every reason to believe she would see me. If she hadn’t, it might have been time to re-evaluate my strategy.
I wondered if this was how she saw the world… and a dim, distant voice in the back of my head wondered if it was how my father did. Okay, both of them were far smoother operators than I was. I didn’t have any illusion that I was some kind of master negotiator or manipulator. But strategizing for conversations, figuring out people’s weakest moments…
Okay, again, “weakest” sounds like I was planning to attack her. Least guarded? Most receptive, I guess, would be the best wording. I was figuring out how to approach her when she would be at her most receptive.
I practiced my approach on the way over. It seemed like the simple, straightforward approach would be the best. I would lay out my case, using arguments based on the very principles she’d expounded to me in private and to the group at her meeting. I couldn’t guarantee she’d agree with my application of those principles, but if I was clear in my stance then I could walk away without a doubt or regret if we didn’t come to an agreement.
As soon as I saw her sitting behind a very clean desk reading something on a tablet, I knew I’d picked my moment well. The difference between Acantha in the classroom and Acantha on her own was almost as drastic as a physical transformation. It was the same person, but free of a position of authority and a score or so students handling volatile items under her direction, she was a lot more fluid and full of life. It went beyond simple relaxation and into something more like stepping out of a rigid suit of armor.
“One moment, please,” she said, not looking up from the clay fragment in her hand. She was wearing a pair of rimless half-moon spectacles that must have had translation or memory functions, because there was no way her eyes needed correcting. She put the tablet aside and took off her glasses. “There.”
“That seems a little old-fashioned for you,” I said.
“There are other ways to weave the enchantments I need, but these are stylish and practical,” Acantha said, giving the glasses a flourish before tucking them into a case.
I’d meant the tablet, but since that wasn’t what I’d come here to talk about I didn’t correct her. It was hard to imagine Acantha messing around with scrolls, much less something so bulky and inelegant. The state of the art had moved on, and while there were traditional wizards who kept up the traditional trappings, that seemed like the opposite of Acantha’s whole vibe.
“Had a good evening?” she said.
“Yeah, pretty good so far,” I said, before my brain caught up with what she’d said. “…it’s not even two in the afternoon, though.”
“I meant last evening… you have a touch of what elves call ‘the well-done walk’, or at least, that’s the polite version,” she said. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve made you blush… I’m sorry, I didn’t think you would be self-conscious about this of all things.”
“I’m… pretty self-conscious in general,” I said, not sure why this of all things would strike her as something someone would be less likely to be self-conscious about.
“Yes, I just had a hard time imagining someone blushing at the oblique mention of an act that she herself performed.”
“I think you’d be surprised,” I said. “It’s probably more of a human tendency than an elven one, though.”
“Very likely true,” she said. “But it’s more of an elven act, so I would have thought that any human who underwent it would have more of an elven outlook. I really should have left it alone, but keeping my mind off all the subjects considered taboo by humans or otherwise not fit for discussion between instructors and students wears me down, so I jumped on what seemed like an opportunity… but as your face is making increasingly clear as this conversation goes on, you did not actually stop in here to talk about this.”
“Uh, yeah… I mean, no, I didn’t,” I said, trying to get my feet back underneath my thoughts. It had all seemed so simple a minute ago. I’d expected Acantha to be relaxed, not…conversational
“Why don’t you have a seat and tell me about it?” Acantha said. “If that’s more comfortable than standing, I mean.”
“It’s about, uh, your project,” I said, easing myself into the chair opposite her.
“Our project… in the sense that I hope you’ll be a part of it, but even if you choose not to, it still won’t be solely mine,” she said with a polished air. “A group endeavor is the whole point. If it were something I could manage on my own, I’d manage it on my own.”
“Right,” I said. “The thing is… well, I think you can count me provisionally in… but… it’s a pretty firm provision, I have to tell you.”
Okay, that was less straightforward than I’d hoped for, but I was starting to get my footing.
“If you’re angling for more information, I’ll tell you what I said before,” she said. “I can’t give you the particulars of the project because I don’t have anything in particular in mind. Ideally, it will take shape in response to the strengths and resources of the group, but I have only an incomplete and secondhand picture of what those strengths and resources might be. That’s part of the appeal for me: I’ll get to see what you’re all made of. As untested and untried as you are, that should be appealing to you, too.”
“I guess… I mean, that’s true, but that’s not actually my condition,” I said. “The thing is… well, the thing is that I’ve been thinking about what you said about gambling and stuff, and I don’t think I can give my time to a serious endeavor if I’m not being paid.”
“Naturally, we’ll have a profit sharing agreement in place before any actual work is done,” Acantha said. “I don’t work with anyone without written terms, and that’s the first lesson I would teach to anyone working with me.”
“I…” I said, then stopped. Acantha took her time to gather her thoughts before speaking, when she needed to. I needed to. What would she do if I did the same? I took a deep breath, cleared my head as best as I could, and then tried again. “Future profits on a project to be decided later isn’t my idea of a sure thing. Maybe you can say with certainty that we’ll come up with something, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be something that could be easily marketed or sold.”
It was for that reason that I was almost certain that she did have a specific idea in mind… how else could she be as sure of success as she seemed? I doubted she would admit it, though, and if there was a way to use my suspicions as a bargaining chip, it would take a more skilled negotiator than me to do it.
“Well… as to that,” Acantha said, and this time she paused to find her thoughts and organize them into words, “since you know I don’t waste my time on a gamble, you could take it as given that I expect this enterprise to be profitable… and since you know I’ve had a successful career, you could infer that my judgments in such matters are generally sound.”
“I could,” I said. “But just because you’ll profit from it somehow doesn’t mean that there will be money in it for me, or that the money will be worth my time.”
This time there wasn’t even a preamble before she went into stop-and-think mode. She went very still, the way that only elves can, and either regarded me with cold, careful calculation or just happened to still be looking at me while she worked her way through her reaction.
“Well, I can’t say you haven’t been paying attention,” she said, finally. “Here’s my offer: you will be paid five silvers an hour for your participation in the project… strictly as an advance on future earnings. How does that strike you?”
Five silvers an hour…
“Well… I like the price, but I’m not sure,” I said. The money was right… double my floor, even… but I was familiar with the pitfalls of the word advance from my fascination with writing during my fanfic days. If you can believe it, I once considered that I might become an author when I grew up. “That still sounds like a gamble, and maybe a worse one… what happens if the projectdoesn’t pan out? I’m not going to accept a deal that might leave me on the hook after I did my part. I want to be paid up front, period.”
“But if you are paid up front and it does pay in the long run, that would leave you being paid twice for the same work,” Acantha said. “And while it’s possible that some extra silvers here and there would be a drop in the bucket compared to your potential earnings, there’s a principle at stake here. It wouldn’t be fair to pay you twice when everyone else is getting paid once. Unless you’d like to make the case that everyone should be paid up front?”
I sensed that there was a test here. If Acantha wasn’t Acantha, then it might have been a test of morals.
“If anyone else has a problem with the terms you offer them, they’re free to take it up with you themselves,” I said, carefully.
“What if I were to offer you payment up front in lieu of participating in the profit sharing?”
Another test… or maybe, more accurately, a trap. I had a strong feeling that if I bit on this, Acantha would decide she didn’t need my help after all. Either that, or she would take it as a sign that she could take me for all that I was worth.
“That wouldn’t be fair to me,” I said. “Let’s stick with the advance, but let’s be clear: it’s against possible future earnings. What I make, I keep, even if the whole thing goes belly-up or somehow loses money.”
“What money is there to lose?” she said. “We’re not starting with any capital.”
“Either way,” I said. “What I earn, I keep. You can deduct it from my share of the profits if there are any, but either way, I get paid for the hours I work. Is that not reasonable?”
“You realize that of all the people I tapped, you are the least experienced and have the least specialized knowledge or training?” she asked.
“I realize that you wanted me enough to tap me anyway,” I said. “You came up with the figure of five silver an hour. Are you going to argue that I’m not worth that?”
“No, I don’t suppose I will… done,” she said. “But with one caveat: my agreement is contingent on your agreement not to discuss the terms of your compensation with the rest of the project. I’ll be paying you out of my own pockets, and while it’s not a difficult cost to absorb, I also don’t want the whole process to be bogged down by negotiating terms with every member of the project. I expect some of them will have the same idea, anyway, but you came to me on our own initiative. Let them do the same.”
“Agreed,” I said.
It was obvious from the way she spit it out without hesitating that Acantha had practiced the bulk of this speech in her head. I’d thrown her for a moment, but she must have foreseen this conversation happening in some form, at some point. Though maybe she hadn’t necessarily planned on having it with me. I realized that she must have intentionally seeded the idea when she’d talked about her dislike of gambling at the first meeting… or maybe she realized that at least some of the people in the room would have the temerity to take her at her word.
Either way, I had a feeling now that the entire thing had been a test. I supposed that I’d passed it, in her eyes, but I found I didn’t actually care about her approval. Well… I cared about it a little. The main thing that mattered, though, was that I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. I was getting paid.
With that settled, I started to turn to leave, but my eyes fell on the tablet, still sitting on the desk. Even upside-down, something jumped out at me, if only because I’d been seeing it almost every day for more than a year now: a rune, the forked staff of wizardry that was one of the three symbols of power bound into Two’s forehead.
“Golem runes?” I blurted out.
“What?” Acantha said. She picked up the tablet, glancing down at it. “I suppose some of them are in use for golems, but it’s really just an old curiosity I picked up.”
“What’s it do?” I ask.
“It’s not a functional item, just a fragment… it might never have actually been enchanted,” she said. “If there’s nothing else, I have a number of things to attend to… including putting together our next meeting. After all, I can’t pay you if there’s no work.”
“I’ll let you get to that, then,” I said.
“We’ll talk soon.”
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