Six days passed slowly. The Velderland Air News told of scattered reports of Skaji attacks near the borders. What were they waiting for? Maybe they didn’t have the guts to strike deep into our territory yet. Perhaps the attack on Tent City was a practice run to see how well their new tactics worked?
I took a detour after work a couple of days ago. The Skaji embassy was buttoned up tight with extra security; I never understood why we would allow those murderous heathens to set up a spy shop inside our capital. I smiled when I saw the egg splatters on the walls. At least somebody was angry enough to spend hard earned coin on making a statement.
My thoughts turned toward those in Tent City who didn’t make it. I had seen Riders slain, craftsmen burned alive. Tents and shacks aflame, did anyone make it out on foot? What had happened to Glenson my shop master? I didn’t like him but he was fair.
Nana seemed pleased that I was gainfully employed again. She pestered me about Carolyn every day after work. Did she think unmarried men over twenty were a threat to civilized society?
At the end of my shift on the sixth day while I was sweeping up a pile of shavings, Franklin, another journeyman found me at my workbench.
“Hey Victor what are ya doing tonight?”
I swept the discarded wood and metal filings into the trash bucket. “Umm, nothing.”
He smiled, his round face and thin black mustache curled into a mischievous smile. “Oh really, then what have you been lookin’ at in yer pocket all day?”
My eyes involuntarily glanced down at my trousers pocket where Carolyn’s token rested. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Frankie. I’m just going to roost back at the boarding house.”
“Victor, you play cards?”
“Not usually why?”
“Don’t, cuz you’d lose yer shirt.” His hand snapped out finding my pocket.
I still had the dustpan in my hands, had I been quicker on my feet I might have brained him with it.
He managed to snatch Carolyn’s wooden token. He stared at the white symbol. “What’s this then?”
“Give it back!” I said much louder than I meant to. I reached for it but he pulled away.
“No… hey, this magic ink?”
“Yes, what do you think?” I replied.
I stepped forward and tried to grab it, he maneuvered away faster than I thought someone of his ample girth could accomplish. I thought about pummeling him right then and there. Sure he had a couple of stone weight on me but I was head and shoulders taller than he. Sanity prevailed because beating the stuffing out of one of Sam’s journeymen might have been detrimental to my continued employment.
He stared at it again, turning the little plank of wood around at different angles, trying to discern its magical properties, like he knew what he was doing.
He began laughing, a deep, none too friendly, belly laugh. “How much coin did ya waste on some charlatan’s fake?”
“It’s not a fake!” I said as I grabbed his wrist.
“Easy, easy, Vic don’t go gettin’ violent now.” He let go of the token, “Just foolin.”
I secured it back in my pocket.
“Sheesh Vic, please don’t start callin’ it ‘my precious’ kay?”
“Just let me be.”
He chuckled, “Thirty coin?”
“You spend thirty pieces on that thing?”
I closed my eyes, “Don’t you have something to do, perhaps clean the bluing tank with your tongue?”
He shuffled off taking his annoying laugh with him. I finished cleaning, rolled up a leather travel toolkit, and hit the cobblestones. As I began crossing the lane a speeding Buffalo drawn cart nearly ran me down, the driver seemingly oblivious. Once my heart came back down from its hiding place in my throat I continued on my path to the University.
A not so short walk from the craftsman district into the older wealthier side of town later, I arrived at the gates.
The University in a past age was the palace fortress of Emperor Novius. It’s also where he died from rapid onset lead poisoning after taking four matchlock balls to the chest. Thus ending the Velderland Empire and ushering in the Republic.
It was a rather imposing complex, curved granite walls, towers and arches encased in limestone made the University Magorus seem otherworldly. It towered above the landscape as if silently shouting defiance to the skies above.
I approached the ornate iron gate; a rather large guard dressed in his red and gold livery stepped out from a little shack. He wore a large Mark V Infantry pistol on his belt, and a Mark III Airborne Carbine hung on a leather sling over his shoulder. He seemed annoyed that someone of my low status was approaching. He was probably used to dealing with Magii, dignitaries and senators.
“State your name and business.” He said without trying to hide his belief that I arrived solely to pester him.
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t just say that I wanted to see Magus Cooke. “Uhh, I…”
“Spit it out man.”
I’m sure in a fair fight he could have pummeled me senseless, “Victor Vaughnson, a Magus gave me a token.”
He looked at me dubiously. I fished it out of my pocket and handed it to him.
“Who did you steal this from?”
“No sir I didn’t steal it. I was given it and told to come here today and show it to you.”
He grunted, “I’ll need to check this out, don’t go anywhere.”
He went back inside his shack; I heard him speaking on a comm stone. “Front gate watch… Ma’am… Yeah some craftsman says he was given an inked token. I think it’s stolen… Yeah… uh huh… It’s a white symbol… Yes it’s real… I’ll ask him.”
He popped his head out, “Hey Leather Apron, who gave this to you?”
Leather Apron? Nice. “Magus Cooke.”
He went back to the comm stone. “Cooke… yeah I’ll wait.”
The next few moments stretched longer that I believed they should have. I stood by the gate waiting for someone else to decide whether or not I could come in. Having other people decide ones fate was never my cup of tea.
Whoever was on the other end of the stone came back on. I leaned in a bit closer hanging on every word “Yes Ma’am… alright… thank you.”
He moved his muscle bound frame out of the shack and approached me. “We called Magus Cooke, she said she doesn’t know anyone by the name of Victor. So you should probably run off before I have you arrested for possession of stolen property.
My mouth fell agape. My heart pounded in my chest, had I offended her? “Sir, I… I don’t know what’s wrong, but Magus Carolyn Cooke… told me…”
The guard snickered like he was trying hard to keep from laughing. He couldn’t help himself, he belted out a hearty laugh, “Ooh boy, you should have seen your face.”
I sighed. “Funny, you’re a genuine traveling fool. Are you going to let me in now or what?”
He chuckled again, apparently he had a very boring job and believed I was here for his amusement. He nodded and fished an inked stone key from his pocket. He waved it at the lock and it clicked open.
He handed me back Carolyn’s token and allowed me in. I was about to go up the road toward the tower when he halted me.
“Hey Apron, I need to search you first.”
I stopped and handed him my tool bundle. He set it down on a small table next to the shack and opened it.
“What do you need all this for?”
“I’m an Armsmaker and repairer, isn’t it obvious?”
He grunted, “Do you have any weapons concealed on your person.
“What do you have?”
“An Olsen third model Self Defense Flint, and a Coldwell folding blade.”
He smiled, “Well Apron, you’ve got good taste, in iron if not clothes. Put them in this box.” The back of the guard shack had a series of small lock boxes bolted to it.
I did as instructed. He closed the box, took a small inked chip and handed it to me. “Bring this back and pick your iron up when you leave.”
By the time we were done a young servant boy had arrived. “Watchman, reporting as requested.”
“Good. Take this man to the antechamber, one of Magus Cooke’s staff will arrive shortly for him.”
I followed the boy in silence the short distance to the University; he told me to have a seat on a bench and promptly disappeared down a hallway.
The wood bench was cold; the antechamber was fairly plain, except for the vase of lavender flowers sitting in a niche. I hate sitting still without anything to do. I had nothing to read, nothing to occupy my hands that were used to manipulating tools wood and steel. I tapped my toe on the stone floor. The small windows let in a bit of the fading evening light. Then I realized that it was too bright in this room for only natural lighting.
I looked up, a crystal chandelier glowed brightly. I squinted looking for candles, there weren’t any. I stood up to get a closer look. No flames, no oil, nothing but glowing crystals. I knew those who worked the ink could do incredible things but create light?
I thought about moving the bench and standing on it so I could grab one of the crystals, but I didn’t know how I would explain my actions if I was caught. The University wouldn’t look too highly on the theft of inked items.
Footsteps approached and a heavy door creaked open. A pretty young blonde woman, nearing her twenties entered.
“I’m one of Magus Cooke’s students, she sent me to fetch you.”
She led me though the University, down each hallway were more wondrous things than I’d ever seen since I’d moved to Vassar. The student caught me gawking at a display of levitating inked rocks.
“Some believe what you’re seeing can be scaled up and made to float buildings. I have my doubts but…” she trailed off and I had to peel myself away from the magic.
We entered a workshop room, it wasn’t all that unlike where I worked making flintlock weapons, other than the occasional floating object, or glowing crystal.
Carolyn was demonstrating how to paint ink symbols on a heavy horse cavalryman’s pauldron. Her students varied from those so young they were but a few years from suckling, all the way to white haired elders with one foot in the grave. When she looked up from her instruction she saw me, and stopped in mid-sentence. She wore a deep scowl on her face, my heart sank.
“Excuse me class but I have someone who decided to so rudely interrupt our lesson.” She left the piece of armor on its stand and strode toward me. “Finally, I’ve been waiting since noon! How dare you keep one of the Pictorus waiting?”
“No I uhh…” I bowed, “Begging your pardon Magus, I have no excuse for my tardiness.”
Her eyes glanced to the leather bundle in my hands, “Well at least you remembered to bring your tools. I want my rifle ready for a hunting excursion, by yesterday.”
“Yes Magus.” I said as meagerly as I could manage. Humility was never one of my strong points.
“Class, begin the painting exercise on your individual pieces of armor. Feel free to assist one another, while I deal with this… Armsmaker.” The last word dripped with contempt.
She turned to me, and said in a low voice, “Follow me.”
I took a deep breath and did as instructed.
At the far end of the workshop and classroom were the doors to what I assumed was an office. We entered and she closed the door. It was a relatively small room with a cluttered desk, table and a couple of chairs. Every square span of wall space held something important from a hook or shelf. In a cleared spot on the desk was a fine color case hardened flintlock carbine, for use on the back of a Raptor.
She held up her finger for silence. She picked up an inked rock, she said something to it and the white symbols began to glow. Something happened to the air in the room but I wasn’t sure what.
“Privacy ward.” She said as her scowl melted away to a smile.
I felt much better, “Carolyn.”
“Victor, why were you late, really?” She said as she set the ward stone down, “Did you forget I told you to come at noon? I have no classes at that hour.”
“I’m sorry, I just got a new job, and couldn’t come till my shift ended.”
She took a step closer, I looked down at her. I thought back to the night we spent together on a mountain top under a giant bird’s wing. What a magical time that was, well other than the deaths, fleeing for our lives and the metal plucked from my skin while I bit down on a stick.
“Well I’m glad you finally made it. Congratulations on the new job. A man of your skills must be in demand.” She was wearing a sweet feminine scent mixed with the lightly acidic smell of magic ink.
I blushed, “Not really.”
An awkward silence hung in the air like a black storm cloud on the horizon on a day starved of wind.
After an indeterminable amount of time I mustered up enough courage to ask, “Why did you have me come here anyway?”
She looked down at the rifle lying on the workbench, as if it perhaps held the answer, “You asked when you might see me again. I figured Endweek was the best time because my duties are lighter.”
I didn’t know what I was doing. Was I a fool to believe she had feelings for me? For a man of a lowly station, a simple Armsmaker? I noticed she was wearing a hair band inlaid with beautiful blue Lapis lazuli stones. She hadn’t worn any jewelry before, and her hair was combed more neatly than usual.
“I…” my heart pounded in my chest, I wanted to profess my feelings but I didn’t know what to say. “I mean to say, can you show me how to work the ink?”
Hey, you don’t know what it’s like. Magii don’t, how do you modern people call it; ‘hang out’ with craftsmen. I think I did pretty well all things considered. Now please don’t interrupt this next part, alright?
She sighed, “Officially no, but…”
“I can show you some things during your visits here.”
Visits? I wasn’t sure if that pesky little ‘s’ was on the end of visit or not. Would she invite me back?
She reached up and retrieved a deep red mahogany box. It was well warn, and looked like it was old enough to have been owned by Magus Sirenia. The kind grey haired elder magus for whom I did all that work after I broke my leg ‘flying’ off the barn.
She opened the case with a key retrieved from somewhere inside her robes. The lid opened with an audible creak. Within the wooden box were several small glass pots with screw on lids.
“This is a selection of the most commonly used magical inks. Each color has its own purpose and function. I am sure you already know the color used to bond Raptors.”
I thought about the handprint on Windrider’s beak, thinking of him reminded me of the emptiness. “It’s a kind of deep red.”
“Yes,” she pulled a bottle out of the box; it was filled with the same shade I remembered. “We call this color Bond Red.”
She twisted the lid off and dipped a small glass rod into it. She let a single drop drip onto a sheet of fine paper. Capping the bottle she put it back in the box. “This is the first rule every initiate learns. Never leave a container open for longer than it takes to retrieve the needed ink.”
“Spilling ink is like throwing a chest full of coin into the deepest gorge in the Bitter Sea.” She said it like I had asked a moronic question. “Especially Bond Red, it is the most valuable of the normal inks.”
“Is it made from something rare and expensive?”
She grabbed another bottle, “Yes, but not any more than other colors.”
“So why is its value so high then?”
She held out her gloved hand fingers spread wide.
“I don’t understand.”
She grunted in a decidedly unladylike manner. “Victor have you not seen the palm marks on the giant falcons, eagles, and hawks?”
“Bond Red is highly valued because of the sheer volume we must use.”
I tried to wrap my head around what she was saying, “So it’s like black powder and lead during wartime?”
“Something like that.” The vial in her hand held a shimmering white ink, brighter than the paper she put a drop on. “Mind White is used for aid in focusing thought, discernment, and something you have used before.”
I rubbed my head trying figure out what she was talking about, then it hit me. “Comm stones?”
“Yes, so you’ve noticed.”
“Mind White… so do comm stones send our voices?”
“No, they send thoughts.”
That was surprising, “But it sounds like someone is talking right next to me.”
She nodded, “That is your head interpreting thoughts as speech. If you concentrate hard enough it is possible to use a comm stone without speaking.”
Carolyn went through the colors putting a drop of each on the page. When she finished it held a rainbow of color that probably cost more that what I made in a month making rifles.
She took a regenerative quill off her desk and began writing the name of each color under its corresponding drop. Her handwriting was much cleaner than mine.
“Time for some homework.”
She put hands on her hips, “Did you say you want to learn or not?”
“By this time next week I require you to have this sheet memorized. Not only by name, but you need to know the function of each color.”
I sighed, “I shall try.”
She coughed, “Victor, don’t try. Either do this or don’t bother coming back.”
I tasted bile, “I will memorize this.” She was serious.
She put her quill away, handed me the sheet and a copy of the ‘Pocket guide to Inks of the Magus Pictorus.’
I was about to leave when she put a hand on my arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Umm, I thought we were done.”
She shook her head, “No, I do need my rifle repaired; the hammer and frizzen don’t seem to be making enough sparks. So stay in here and work on it while I tend to my class.”
She took a step to leave and hesitated, she turned back, reached up and kissed me on the cheek.
I stood dumbfounded as I watched her go. It took me a few long moments before I recovered enough to begin fiddling with the rifle.
She kissed me!