Don’t make me kill her? I felt like a boot had been introduced to my gut at high velocity. The look in her eyes was one of complete conviction. Like that of a Skaji suicide grenadier. Who was this jealous Magus really? What did I owe her?
My thoughts turned to the disappearing magic sentence on the letter I had received what seemed like a lifetime ago.
If you hurt her, you will beg me for a quick death.
What was with these Magii and their death threats? Was this how things were accomplished around here? I looked down at my hand; I’d need gloves, like a proper painter of the ink.
Things were much simpler when I was building and repairing Flintlocks. I was but a pawn toiling away amid many other pawns. True, things were not as interesting but they were safer. Except for when Tent City was wiped out.
I shuddered; the second Great War was upon us, the Skaji threat was real. Innocents had been slaughtered right alongside soldiers. Soon I’d be in the thick of the fighting, supporting Riders, horsemen, infantry and artillery. They constantly needed gear to be inked, replenished and reworked.
Being a grown man I’d be given the most dangerous assignments, the younglings would be kept either in the University itself or in rear areas. But were the rear areas safe with the air raid capabilities of the Skaji?
I needed someone to talk to. But who? How much should I reveal of my situation. I walked through the hallways past the displays of floating rocks that a few weeks earlier had captivated me without as much as a sidelong glance.
I went down the stairwell avoiding the gravity lift, despite assurances they were safe I didn’t like standing in a box that moved of its own accord, it just didn’t seem right. As I turned the corner I nearly ran into Raven.
“There you are.” She said with a smile.
My heart began pounding, “Uhh… yes here I am.”
“What is wrong?”
I was about to continue down the next flight of steps when she put a hand on my shoulder. “V, you seem… distant.”
I looked into her eyes, she looked concerned. “Nothing, I just don’t want to talk about it.” I said as my eyes moved to the scar on her head. No hair grew where the scar tissue was, some might think it ugly but I found it interesting.
“Why is it you men do not want talking?”
I looked away, “I… I can’t tell you.”
“Cannot or will not?”
I shrugged and started down the stairs.
“You are all confusing, you strange men things.”
I stopped and looked up at her, “We are nothing compared to you women.” She stood stunned for a moment, perhaps I had offended her?
Then she laughed, “You are correct about that.” She took a step down, now we were about the same height. “We are just as odd as you.”
She put her hands on my shoulders, “What is disturbing you? Is it something with Magus Cooke?”
I closed my eyes; I could feel myself becoming tense.
“She likes you don’t she?”
“I knew it. She likes you, and I like you, so you are worried about being caught in the middle.”
I pulled one of her hands off my shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze. “Things are complicated. Please I do not wish to make them any worse than they are.”
She pulled her hands back, and frowned, “I understand, Initiate Vaughnson.”
She pushed past me, I watched her go. I’d rather have been fighting Skaji raiders.
“Yer in a tight spot aint ya?” A scratchy voice behind me caused me to jump.
I turned to find the owner of the voice. Standing nearby was a white haired old man leaning on a broom. I’d seen him before but couldn’t place where.
“I… uhh… no, why would you ask such a foolish question?”
He laughed, it sounded like someone dragging pots and pans down a gravel road. After a few moments he began coughing uncontrollably. I was about to grab his arm to steady him but he waved me off. He pulled out a once white handkerchief and wiped a bit of spittle off the corner of his mouth.
“Initiate Vaughnson, yer a lousy liar, don’t even think ‘bout playin’ Tall Card. Lose yer shirt ya would.”
“How long were you listening to us talking?”
He smiled revealing a mouth missing several teeth, “Heard most o’ it.”
“Hey don’ be all mad at ole Leo, I just be doin’ me job.” He said as he held up his broom and dust bin. “I was cleanin’ the upper stairs when I hear ya both talkin’ all secret like.”
“So you admit you were eaves dropping.”
He laughed again, “You fancy high class peoples, don’ see us cleanin’ types most o’ the time.”
“High class? I’m a simple Armsmaker…” then it hit me. I wasn’t an Armsmaker anymore; I was an Initiate into the order of the Magus Pictorus, the bottom of the upper crust.
“Armsmaker eh?” He looked at my Initiates garb a bit doubiously, “Ya sure don’ look like no Smoke pole builder. Ya look like the rest o’ them shiny new Initiates, ‘cept yer too tall.”
“No you look son. Ya is in a tough spot, and ya need to decide which one of dem girls you is wantin’ and don’t be no lookin’ back.”
I stood a bit baffled, not knowing what to do. I pressed my fingers to the side of my head where it began throbbing.
“Now ‘scuze me Initiate, Leo’s got some stairs ta sweep.”
I made my way to the barracks in a fog.
A few more days of Ink training passed uneventfully, the remaining Initiate class was split up among three instructors. Magus Alderman seemed younger than our usual teachers but he was sharp. I gleaned much from him about the symbols, marking, and bonding.
They had all of us students activating marks on weapons and armor. Soon our hands were all covered in burns. It was painful, but with the burn salves, manageable. Still each night I’d lie awake in bed feeing my hands throbbing. Some of the younger boys would cry and I’d give them a little extra burn salve from my own bottle.
Carolyn told us that we wouldn’t feel the pain after a while. I wasn’t sure how that was possible. Working the magic took a lot out of me. Not only did one have to bear the pain and scars but something inside ones soul became imbued into the ink and item. An emptiness seemed to slide in somewhere where I couldn’t see it.
Thoughts of Carolyn, and Raven filled my mind. Both were beautiful in their own way. Each had expressed feelings for me, but only one had mentioned murder.
Victor, you’re lucky and unlucky at the same time aren’t you?
Yes, it’s not what I would choose for my worst enemy. Except maybe Thirty Three, that prisoner was a complete Thorn in my side.
Why can’t you have both of them?
You know, isn’t there plenty of Victor to go around?
The Skaji do things like that, not Velderlanders. I’m rather surprised hearing that kind of talk from a Modern. Besides I don’t believe they would get along.
Sorry, I’ll stop interrupting.
Good, seems like I have trained you well. Unfortunately it took about 120 pages.
What? You’re incredibly rude did you know that?
Moving right along, a few days passed. When Halveday rolled around we had some free time after our studies. The younger initiates wanted to play Wall to Wall. I declined their invitation stating my being on either team would create whining by the losers. But I was consumed by my work on the miners mask.
I sketched, fiddled, fabricated, tested and improved my design. I took the entire table in the common room to work. Before I was able to clean up, the sweaty Initiates returned from their game.
“Hey whatcha got there V?” Slim asked.
I started putting it away, “Nothing.”
“Well it looks more like something than nothing.” Spoon replied as he grabbed one of the prototype masks.
“Put it down!”
The brat wasn’t about to obey me. He pulled the mask on over his head “Hey look at me. I’m a monster!” He made some growling noises, which sounded odd coming through the breathing valve.
“A monster? You, never!” I feigned shock.
He pulled off the mask and tossed it; I caught it and looked inside. It was dripping wet, “Great, I’ll never get your stench out now.”
Bosque poked it timidly, “What does it do? And why is it so ugly?”
I shrugged, “It doesn’t do anything yet, but with some inked air stones it should provide clean air to miners deep underground.”
Raven who had been ignoring me since our conversation in the stairwell on Premday crossed her arms over her chest and said, “You are a fool.”
“A fool, you know not what you are creating. Do you not see what this is?”
I squinted trying to find hidden meaning in her expression, “Umm it’s a mask for miners.”
“Wrong, if this piece of juntah, actually works Riders could use it.” She said, her voice as cold as mountain wind.
“Use it for…”
She pressed her hand up against her scar, “High altitude flying! Don’t you see? This will give our Riders a huge advantage over the Skaji.”
I hadn’t even contemplated making it for Raptor Riders, then I remembered having a hard time breathing at the higher levels where the air was thin.
“What do our flight instructors tell us?” She continued.
The Initiates replied in unison, “Altitude is life.”
“What?” She asked again.
“Altitude is life!” They repeated louder.
A light came on in my head, “So our Riders could patrol at much higher altitudes and pounce down on the flying worms.”
Raven smiled, “This must be taken to the council at once.”
“But it doesn’t work… yet.” I protested, I hadn’t designed the mask for high altitudes, for all I knew it might kill the wearer high in the sky.
She shook her head, “V, there is only one way to find out. You need to take this to the Magii.”
I sighed as I put everything back in my box. “Agreed, I’ll take this to the Council, next Premday. That will give me enough time to get a couple of air stones and a pressure vessel to make it work.”
Six days? Could I accomplish all that in six days, between copious amount of physical training, ink classes, and cleaning duties? What was I getting myself into?