Wind and darkness pressed as a heavy hand against the garrison hospital. Timber creaking with the tenebrous strain. Valyncort opened an eye, blinked, feeling the warmth of the worn wool covers. He looked to the right, spying the cloth of his feather-stuffed pillow and the ruffled base of his bed, above it the chamber window, which framed the residential district, and the gleaming souk beyond, still shimmering with lantern-light despite the late hour, and, behind it, the steepled spires of Consulate Hall, which towered over the surrounding masonry, beyond that, barely visible by the ice-blue light of the moon, the palisades which enclosed the inner district. He looked to his left, spying his ailette and aketon, brigandine, and black and white surcoat that hung from a wall-mounted, lacquered lay rack, his hand-and-a-half resting in scabbard against the corner; the boltless chamber door, closed. Valyncort adjusted his head on the pillow, closed his eyes and began to drift back to the liquid land of sleep. Seconds later, the creaking of a floorboard and a looming man-shaped shadow jolted him from soporific haze. He grabbed the baselard beneath his pillow and tore toward the intrusive shade. Abaishen, he lunged at the figure, instinctively pressing his white-knuckled blade against what he presumed to be a cloth-covered larynx.
“Wag your tongue while yet able.”
“Calm yourself, captain. Its me.”
As the fog of fear and sleep expired, Valyncort discerned the fretful form of Giles Rathdam at the edge of the bed, leaning his upper-body nervously away from the moon-lit brand.
“Curse it all,” Valyncort grumbled, releasing the safecracker and setting the blade upon the bed. “You gave me a damnable fright. Your title unchosen, but well deserved.”
“I did not mean to startle you, sir. But merely to thank you for returning my ceorlage.” The locksmith held up a neatly folded piece of wax-sealed parchment. “Came for you. By night courier.”
Valyncort rubbed grit from his eyes and sat up on the edge of the mattress. “Read it.”
Siles cleared his throat, held up the billet and read aloud. “To: Esser Meyrin Valyncort. I would like to discuss a urgent matter. Come to Vatn’sla. Today. Signed: Kosif Reyn.”
“Scant on details. What would the master of the river forge want with me?”
“I dunno sir. You know this ‘Kosif’?”
“I have heard of him, but never met him. Wherefore all these ‘lord’ and ‘sirs?'”
“Criminal, not cad, I be, my lord.”
“I am not a lord and I trust you are no longer a larcenist.”
“No, no. New leaf and all that. But. You must admit, it has a ring to it. Lord Valyncort. Does it not?”
“Perhaps for you. I’ve no interest in over-leaping my station.”
“If you speak truly, that is a rare sentiment. But you misunderstand me. I was not suggesting you had. I was but trying, perhaps clumsily, to show deference, for the boon you have granted me.”
“Cease your obsequiousness.”
“I’m trying to thank you, dash it. And what do I get for the trouble? A knife to my gullet and fie thereafter.”
“Enough prattle. To breakfast. Then you may shake your feathers, hen.”
The two men adjourned their conversation and retired downstairs and were shortly joined by Hulmarra and Silifrey for a light breakfast of meat pudding, diced fruit and chilled sweet-roast. Valyncort remarked upon the letter and its content and declared his intent to met the enigmatic sender, whereupon his three companions voiced their assent. Thus decided, the quartet departed in the early, still-stirring hours for the Balkr river, which curved about the southern outskirts of Urvolsk, and reached its jagged, grassless banks in just under an hour. There the clattering foundry of Vatn’sla rose up from the foggy, azure depths upon wrought iron struts; an enormous waterwheel affixed to the side of the ersatz mount threshed the water and black smoke billowed from a raised mass of slender vents that scraped the darkening sky. At the northern edge of the river a folding bridge had been suspended by chains from the upper reaches of the forge and in the water some fifty feet below the road a hefty barge ferried ores and slag. The quaternion halted briefly to absorb the imposing scenery, then hitched their horses to a well-kept communal stable set well back from the river, to the left of the bridge, and made for the ominous span, crossing thereafter to the artificial islet.
When the travelers reached the other side of the bridge, Tessel propped herself against the western end column of the pier abutment, shivering, much with fright as the morning cold. “It is marvelous, but I would not wish to ford that chasm with any frequency. I’m dreadfully dizzy.”
“Shouldn’t look down, miss. Still, you did well. Better’n I thought.”
“Did you think me so delicate as to faint, Mr. Rathdam?”
Siles chuckled. “Not at all, lass.”
“I did,” Hulmarra interjected flatly.
“Well, now I know who to avoid should I require a bolster of confidence.”
“Confidence is a matter of constitution, yours is lacking.”
“Pathfinder,” Valyncort snapped. “It was not for such consultation I commissioned you. I would appreciate it if you dispense with errant physic and focus on your job.”
“Whatever you say, boss.” Ambercrown walked on ahead.
When the archer had moved beyond earshot Tessel bent to the soldier. “Why must you bring that horrid woman along?”
“Because she’s useful.”
“And I’m not?”
“I didn’t say that.” Before the man could respond further the woman stormed off, prompting Siles to strike up a tune.
“Of Lord Valyncort, it has been said, he’d a silver tongue, so to be wed, he fretted not with dowries, nor fathers of the bonny; preferring instead the bordel, where with honied words, plied stunning curves of the pale and the tawny.”
A sudden smack to the back of the locksmith’s head cut short the jangling ballad, whereupon the singer gave a yelp of exaggerated distress.
“Oy. It was you what said I was a hen. Tis only right I cluck.”
“Remember what happens to a fowl when it ceases to produce eggs.”
With that the two men joined the women at the hulking iron gate to the facility. From the second-story a harsh male voice called down.
The band looked up and perceived a soot covered man in padded vestments, fraying at the sleeves, with a thick beard, fiery eyes and massive stained hands. The porter leaned over one of the many low, decorative barbican embrasures and eyed the visitors suspiciously.
“I am Esser Valyncort, Captain of the Watch.” The soldier held up the missive from the night courier toward the scruffy sentry. “I was invited by your master.”
The gatekeeper looked from the letter to the man’s wolf-hide cloak and straightened. “Right. Just a moment.”
Several seconds passed, after which there came the clattering of gears and chains and the great iron gate ascended. The foursome passed beneath it and emerged into a wide courtyard where men and women and a few children busily sorted minerals into large wheeled crates that were moved down through a pass to the left, to the right a ornate metal door of copper or brass was visible. The familiar voice of the porter resounded from above.
“Follow me, please. And mind your steps.”
From a wall walk that curved down from the inner barbican wall to the left, the barrel-chested form of the porter descended and guided the troupe through the industrious enclosure to the brass-colored door, upon which was carved a ensign familiar to the captain: a fearsome pike with bladed wings. The Crest of Reyn. The porter pulled a lever to the left of the door, whereafter the portal slid away, revealing a heavy metal lift which ascended into the tower proper and let out to a smouldering circular cavity, thick with the scent of oil and char. Everywhere clockwork clattered, sparks flew and chains shook. Lifts, similar to the one the group had taken bore heavy loads of raw materials and tools, up and down, and from somewhere below came the sibilation of steam. The escalator in the center of the forge-spire halted and slowly ascended. Up from that clangorous pit it emerged, bearing a wan man, with back-swept hair and placid eyes, peculiar of hue, garbed in chitinous cimmerian plate, forged from the painted shells of giant inland crustaceans. Over his plate, he wore thick, form-fitting robes, each forearm hidden in the adjacent sleeve. He stepped gracefully from the platform onto the circular walkway that ringed the interior of the vast hold and surveyed his guests with an expression of keen anticipation as the porter departed.
“You have deigned to expend some life on me. Being well apprized of how little most have to spend, I shall ensure a worthy purchase.”
“Well, I am pleased to hear it. You must be Kosif Reyn.”
“I am. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain Valyncort.”
Siles crossed his arms, glancing about as he took several steps forward. “This is quite an impressive establishment you’ve got here. I’d have killed for something like this back when I had my practice.”
“I doubt that. From what I gather, murder was not your preferred form of criminality.”
A look of surprise crested the locksmith’s face.
“You know of Mr. Rathdam?” Tessel inquired politely.
“I have knowledge of all of you, Ms. Silifrey,” Kosif replied. “Save for the dour one.”
Siles turned to Hulmarra with a grin, incurring a subtle scowl.
“But you are doubtless wondering why I summoned you.”
“Yes, your letter was light on details.”
“I apologize for that, Mr. Valyncort, but as Vilmin told you, this is a delicate matter.”
Valyncort hesitated, ensure what to disclose.
“By ‘this’ I mean the expedition to Mazr’s keep, that is what I wished to speak to you about. First, however, some clarification is in order.”
“I should say so. Has the Proconsul commissioned you as well?”
“No, but his interests, and therefore your interests, and mine, align.”
“Then how did you-“
“I have not spied upon you. I have friends in many places, some at the consulate, friends sometimes divulge more than they should. You can understand if I do not give you their names. I am deeply interested in Hlfglarean artifice, but, given the dearth of Hlfglarean ruins, my curiosity, my research, has been impeded. Vilmin’s acquisition of the Mazrian Codex provides a rare avenue to satiate that curiosity.”
“He did not leave the tome with me.”
“I would have been surprised and dismayed if he had. Its too precious to risk the elemental exposures of a cross-country journey. He gave you a copy. Which, I induce, you gave to,” he turned to Silifrey, “Her.”
“Yes. Well tell us then. What are you proposing?”
“A simple trade, Mr. Valyncort. Let me read the duplicate codex and I shall avail myself to you, and your associates, in any way I can.”
Valyncort cupped his chin, momentarily lost in thought, then looked toward the dark robed man before him.
“You wish to accompany us?”
“The journey may be arduous.”
“Nothing worth doing is not.”
“May I have a moment to confer with my associates?”
“Of course.” Kosif strode to the right until the voices of his guests were drowned by the rhythmic clanging of the surrounding machinery.
“Well,” Valyncort began, “What do you think?”
“You already have one to read the codex, one to guide you to Braen, and one to deal with opening the vault. Why do you need him?”
At this point the locksmith slid in. “The dour one makes a good point. He’s well resourced, seems keen, but that doesn’t mean he’s cut out for a trip to Braen. Could be more of a hindrance than a help.”
“Well, I disagree,” Silifrey interjected hesitantly. “Having someone else to go through the script with would be quite helpful. To ensure I’m translating it right. Besides, I think he’s nice.”
“Hm. I hadn’t considered that,” Siles confessed sheepishly. “But now that I am considering it, I, yes, yes I’ve changed my mind. See, if something – Marta forbid – were to happen to our linguist here, we’d still have someone to read it. Also, he’s clearly keen with machines. Might be that he’s able to help me open the vault. Ey?”
“Alright then,” Valyncort looked to the linguist and the locksmith. “Three for his inclusion,” he looked to Hulmarra whose disapproving gaze slowly drifted to met his own. “And one against. The matter is settled then?”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
“You say ‘boss,’ but I suspect you wish to say something altogether different.”
Hulmarra gave a humorless smirk which Valyncort ignored. He turned to the foundry master and waved him back over.
“We’re nearing a conclusion. Just tell me one thing to help me decide.”
Before the soldier could ask his question the locksmith cut in. “It just occurred to me, you didn’t request our weapons.”
“Any who bring weapons to my forge will find them a greater danger to themselves than I.”
“What do you mean?”
For the first time since they had met him, Kosif smiled, a faint, elusive gesture. “I do not think you would understand if I explained it. It would be better to show you.” He shifted to Silifrey, observing the small, ornate seax strapped to her hip.
“Your blade is very beautiful. May I see it?”
“Oh, of course.” As Silifrey reached for the artifact Kosif withdrew his hands, which were covered by two gauntlets of like material to his breastplate, from his sleeves and cast his right arm toward the woman, palm open, fingers flared. Before Silifrey could secure her grip about the handle of the seax she felt a strange force tug at her waist, like a thousand insivible threads. The next instant, the cutter shook rapidly and flew free of its sheath and arced toward Kosif’s right hand. The flat of the blade connected with his palm, and, gingerly, he closed his fingers about it as Hulmarra, trembling, uttered a single word.