The Smith: Chapter 2 (cont…)

He worked his way towards the centre of the city and found himself on the main street approaching the Cathedral. Even from a distance, the Fortress Wall was an imposing sight; a great iron structure, thirty feet in height, jutting out in a semi-circle from the mesa which the Cathedral was built into, enclosing the stronghold of the Manufactorum. Guards line the top, interspersed buy huge ballistae and mangonels, mounted on tracks and operated by mechanical constructs. It was rumoured that the walls themselves bristled with weaponry that could spew flaming oil at any would-be attackers.  He could see now why no army had ever tried to breach it.

Inside, Archdeacon Laondes and his Smiths oversaw the workings of the city. While they did not rule in any official capacity, the Governors of Ferra were merely merchants who had profited greatly from the production of the city, furnishing the rest of the nations and city states of the world with crafted goods, and so did as they were bade by the Council of the Manufactorum. Ferra had sold weapons to all sides, and continued to do so to keep the armies away from them.

Now a Seal had been made and the Archdeacon was to die. It would throw the city into disarray; the foundries would fall silent and the furnaces go out. The people of the city would starve and the war would rage on in spite of it. Shattano knew that his actions would bring this to pass, but it didn’t matter. The fate of all, from the lowliest beggar to the highest ruler, had always been intertwined and it was not for him to force them apart.

The gates to the outer compound of the Manufactorum were always open during the day, to allow in supplicants and merchants. Getting in would not be a problem, but entering the Cathedral itself unnoticed could prove difficult. Navigating the labyrinth of halls and corridors dug into the cliff face to find his target without any sort of prior knowledge would be close to impossible.

 

Even this close to the Cathedral, there were houses which were derelict. He wandered until he found one which seemed tall enough to watch the both the guards on the gate and on the wall. The windows were boarded up overlooking the street, but the entrance to the cellar was merely locked and secured with a chain. It was the work of moments to pick the lock and slide in through the gap which the chain permitted.

Pulling the door to behind him, Shattano paused and listened for sounds of other inhabitants. Satisfied that he was alone, he made his way to the hall and up the stairs to the top floor. The air was stale, and smelled of mould and rotten wood. Dust covered everything and old, long abandoned cobwebs hung from the railings. Every now and then a scurrying beneath the floor belied the rats that inhabited the building now.

In the attic, there was a small, filthy skylight. The hinges wanted for oil, but seemed functional. He dragged an old trunk over beneath the opening, climbed on top of it and looked out; the view was exactly what he had been hoping for. After some time, he stepped down off the trunk, pulling the window closed behind him. He sat on his haunches and, in the gloom and silence, closed his eyes.

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The Smith: Chapter 2 – Somewhere to watch

The walk to the Herbalist was not as long as he had expected, but gave him ample opportunity to take in the city and those who lived closer to the centre. While Ferra was indeed an industrial city, the machines and Chapterhouses of the Manufactorum spread throughout it like the roots of a great tree, the wealth it had once held had allowed it to flourish into something more. Tall houses with ornate fronts lined the streets. Small, elegant gardens occupied the middle of squares to give contrast against a horizon filled with a forest of chimneys. Now stone was darkened with soot, trees were bare or cut down; gardens were filled with refuse and makeshift hovels. The water which once flowed clear in fountains was stagnant.

Ferrans were a proud people, and their insistent neutrality made them wary and cold towards outsiders. Those wealthy enough to have some say in how the city was run did not wish to be reminded of the world outside; guards could be seen roughly escorting the destitute back to the outskirts of the city. Faces were fuller here, but still showed signs of hunger, as was to be expected of a city that long ago gave up agriculture in favour of industry, and for all their wealth, they could not buy in what was no longer available, and the lands around Ferra would need many cycles of tending before they could support crops once more.

He smelled the shop long before he saw it, the rich, pungent aroma of herbs penetrating the persistent stench of the city. It was a well stocked apothecary, and had all that he needed. After purchasing a few vials of tinctures which, when mixed correctly, could make a highly potent poison, Shattano checked that he was alone in the shop before addressing the Herbalist.

‘Tell me, I may have need of some people who can acquire things for me. Would you happen to know of anywhere I should look?’

‘Hmph, the Guild is less prevalent in Ferra these few cycles past, but I dare say they still have some presence. There is a tavern not far from here, The Broken Axle; it would be as good a place as any. It can be found quite easily.’

 

The tavern was indeed close by, off an empty, shaded street; he had not needed to ask for directions as the Guild sigils had been visible along the way. It was dark, musty and quiet inside, with a few patrons nursing their drinks, none of which looked at him as he entered. He paid for two mugs of ale and took them to a table, setting one across from him and waited. Presently, a bulky man wearing a dirty, red skullcap got up from a table he shared with two others, walked over and sat down opposite him.

‘They call me Tareis.’

‘Shattano.’

‘A foreigner, then?’ He sniffed, and took a sip of the ale. ‘Well, that will be no problem here. Are you looking for something?’

‘Yes, I recently misplaced some documents and I was hoping that someone might help me reacquire them.’

‘That is most unfortunate. What sort of documents?’

‘Plans; detailed architectural diagrams of the Cathedral, and of the buildings within the Fortress Wall.’

The man they called Tareis regarded at Shattano for a while, before answering. ‘They will not be easy to find.’

Shattano placed a small pouch in front of him. ‘I will be very grateful.’

‘That’s as maybe, but -‘ he trailed off as he opened the pouch. ‘I see. I will find them for you. Do you need them soon?’

‘The sooner I receive them, the more grateful I will be.’

‘You will have them before endweek. Where are you lodging?’

‘I will meet you here in two days. I would prefer that no-one knew that I had lost them. It could prove embarrassing.’

‘Of course, I am always very discrete in my enquiries.’

‘I am sure you are.’

‘Well,’ Tareis raised his mug and drained it, ‘here is to the reunion of owned and owner.’

Shattano smiled and drank from his own; the ale was bitter and cloying, but not very strong. Tareis pocketed the pouch as he stood up and walked back to his companions. After some hushed whispers one of them, a scrawny youth, got up and hurried out of a side door stealing a furtive glance at Shattano as he did.

Leaving the rest of his ale untouched, he left the tavern and walked back to the main street. Using the Guild made him uneasy, and Tareis was clearly not to be trusted, but there was no other way to get the plans. The Manufactorum had always been notoriously secretive and since the war this had only increased. No sanctioned details of the Cathedral and its surroundings could be found anywhere outside of the compound.

The Smith: Chapter 1 (cont…)

Shattano dreamed. As he had always done, he went over the Lessons. There was always something there more to learn, something that he would have missed from the previous time. With each passing cycle came new experiences, new skills, and always, when he referred back to the teachings of the Magister, did he find a reference to something which he had not understood before. The Lessons were given to the young but were never explained, merely recited and learned until they were instilled within the soul.

He understood why, now; experience is the greatest teacher, but without sufficient guidance within the moment, the experience can become wasted, lost. Therefore, the Lessons were taught to the young initiates so that when they came to experience something new, the guiding hand would be there with them.

‘To be seen is to be remembered;’ the Magister would intone, ‘to be remembered is to exist; to exist is to die. To be fleeting is to be forgotten; to be forgotten is to be myth; to be myth is to survive. That which is looked for is ultimately found; that which is never sought remains hidden.’

At first he had thought that he should become invisible, to remain unseen at all times, but that had ended poorly. You do not hide in the last place they will look, you make sure that they will never look for you. Barralan may remember the traveller with money, but he will not remember anything beyond that.

 

The pinkish light of dawn was filtering through the shutters when Shattano opened his eyes. The sounds of the street were quieter than they had been during the night, but the sounds of cartwheels against stone and the cries of children and hawkers alike carried in the cool air.

Now dry, he buckled on his harness and sheathed his dagger. He pulled on his tunic and trousers, slightly lighter now in the light of day, and wrapped his cloak around him. Barralan would certainly search the room while he was out and a bed not slept in would give him cause to consider his guest more carefully, so he ruffled the bedclothes and hastily straightened them.

Downstairs, the other guests were already breakfasting. Barralan was nowhere to be seen but a young girl was behind the bar, cleaning it.

‘Excuse me, is the landlord about?’

She looked nervous, ‘I am sorry, sir, but the master is asleep. Do you wish for me to get you something from the kitchens?’

‘No. Thank you, but I have much planned for today. Tell me, where is the nearest Herbalist?’

‘That would be down by the lower circle, sir. If you follows the street outside up towards to centre, it splits in two after a ways. Take the right hand street, Smithway, and keep on following it and you’ll reach the circle eventually. It’s a long walk, sir, about an hour. Want I should fetch a porter?’

‘Thank you, but I shall manage fine; and walking will allow me to see the city. I will be back after nightfall. Farewell.’

As he walked towards the door, she called out after him, ‘Sir, you needs to leave your key.’

Turning back, Shattano saw her quail, as if anticipating a strike for raising her voice, but she continued regardless. ‘I’m sorry, sir, but the master likes to have all the keys kept in the inn. It’s the rules.’

He smiled. ‘Of course, I understand. Here.’ He placed the key on the bar and strode out.

The Smith: Chapter 1 (cont…)

The room was small and sparingly furnished. The once white paint that had been used on the walls was cheap and peeling, discoloured from the air in the city. The boards of the floor were worn and a threadbare rug, colour long faded, lay across them in effort to hide some of the larger stains, one of which seemed to be blood. A dull copper tub lay in one corner by a dripping faucet and drain. There was a window which looked out onto the street which let in the night air and sounds, and in front of it was a small table and stool. The other half of the room was taken up by the bed covered in coarse linen, and by the smell of it, an old straw mattress.

He had not wished to draw attention to himself by being opulent, but what he had paid could have probably bought him a month in a better room than this. Well, it was done now, and Barralan seemed more likely to keep quiet in the hope of monopolising his custom. The quality of the room was unimportant anyway; it was merely a place to sleep undisturbed and there were far worse places.

Setting the lantern down on the table, Shattano closed the shutters on the window and then locked the door.  He placed the tub under the faucet and turned it on, hearing the creaking and banging of the water rushing through old pipes. As the steam slowly started to rise, he let his dark cloak slide from his shoulders onto the floor.

His tunic and trousers were a dark, nondescript grey. Loosely fitting, though not baggy, they seemed to shift in the light cast from the lantern, as if the strands of fabric themselves were moving constantly without any aid from the wind. These he removed more reverentially along with leather boots of a similar colour, revealing a brown leather harness strapped to his chest, arms and legs. Sheathed within were several assorted knives, ranging in size from small darts to a large fighting dagger across his chest. He folded his clothes and set them on the table next to the lantern, and set to unbuckling the harness which he laid on the bed.

Shattano wasn’t especially tall, nor was he particularly broad; his muscles were well toned but not large. His dark hair was cut short, save for a thin braid which started behind his right ear and fell to his shoulder. Beyond that, he bore no markings save for a small cluster of scars on his back.

He turned off the faucet and lowered himself into the tub, letting the warmth of the water ease away the tensions and grime of his journey. Methodically, he washed himself, running his hands over his skin, splashing his face and wetting his hair. The taint of the people he had travelled with, of the landlord, they could not be so easily removed, but it felt good nevertheless.

Once finished, he stepped out of the bath and removed the stopper from the side, allowing the water to gush into the drain. He closed the air slits on the lantern, removed the largest dagger from his harness, and sank down onto his knees. He sat there, in the failing light, naked and wet, and closed his eyes. Before the flame in the lantern finally gave out, Shattano slept.

The Smith: Chapter 1 (cont…)

He found an inn closer towards the heart of the city. It was not surprising that they had rooms available; the further away from the station he had been the more guards there were to be seen, which was most likely the reason for there being relatively few refugees visible on the street. It appeared that the original inhabitants of Ferra did not wish to be reminded of the world that was knocking on their door.

The main room of the inn was all but deserted, saving a drunk snoring in the corner, and stank of vomit and stale beer. Only a few lamps were lit, and they flickered, dimly, running out of whatever oil they ran on. Behind the bar sat a fat and balding man, ill shaven, staring emptily at mug, his freshly stained tunic hinting at what it may contain.

‘One room, size and view are irrelevant. At least till endweek, perhaps longer. I am willing to pay five days in advance.’

‘What? Where did you come from?’ the innkeeper spluttered as he tried to maintain balance on his stool.

‘The Station. The sign on the door stated rooms available. Is this not the case?’

‘Station?’ the innkeeper narrowed his eyes, ‘Yes, yes, we have rooms. Though I don’t want none of you lot trying to crowd in on me. You can have a room, but it’s only you as can have it. And when you don’t find work and can’t pay any more then I’ll have you out and call the guard while I’m at it, see?’

‘That shall not be necessary, I have business to conduct here in the city and I do not intend to stay any longer than it takes.’ He withdrew a hand from his cloak and placed a pile of silver coins in front of the host. ‘I believe this should be enough to cover my expenses for some time.’

Seeing the money in front of him, the scorn in the innkeeper’s voice was replaced with an oily, obsequious tone. ‘Ah, I see. Please do forgive me sir, it’s just that we get so many waifs and strays on the streets these times. Fleeing from the war, looking for work they claim but really just after handouts and the generosity of gentlefolk like you and I, sir. Yes, this should do fine over the next few days. Of course, if there is anything I can get you, sir, anything at all, please tell me and I shall see to it. The name is Barralan.’ He turned and reached for one of the keys hanging behind him.

This man was vile, and no better than those he had shared a transport with. He had not been in the city for more than four hours but already he felt polluted, as soiled as the walls and streets. But then what else should he expect from the inhabitants; whether it was their grime that tarnished the city or the filth of the city that tarnished their souls, the outcome was the same.

‘Very well Barralan, then direct me to my room and ensure that the furnace is stoked. My journey was long and I wish to bathe. I trust the room has such facilities.’

Barralan’s hand moved quickly and grasped a different key to the one which he had originally reached for. ‘Of course, sir, all our best rooms do. If you would go up the stairs to the second floor, your room is the second on the left. Take this lantern for your room. I shall see to the furnace myself. Ah, may I enquire a name so that I may enter it into the books?’

‘Yes, Shattano.’

‘Shattano? You certainly have come a long way, Sir. Yes, that will suffice. Thank you sir. Rest well.’

‘Thank you.’

Portfolio Piece – The Smith

So, over the next few days I’ll be putting up my recent portfolio piece – the start is almost identical, but not quite, to Arrival of an Assassin, as that is what gave this piece life. I wish to continue with this story which I am, for now, tentatively calling “The Smith”.

Chapter One: Somewhere to sleep

The transport came to a halt and the passengers swayed to maintain their balance. As they settled down, he noted the mix of expressions on their pathetic faces ranging from hope to apprehension. In the flickering light from the lamps on the walls, they waited in silence for the door of the hold to open. All were tired and sweaty from the long journey in cramped conditions, and the stale air was becoming close and uncomfortable. As the pistons started to operate, he heard many people breathe out with relief, the sound mingling with the hiss of the steam escaping as the metal hatch rolled open. The cogs reverberated through the chamber and people clutched what belongings they had in anticipation as the light from outside shone on their faces.

Stepping out, he was met by a wave of heat and sound. It was night, however the lights from the street and various stalls by the station were blindingly bright after the dim hours spent inside the land-steamer. The cries of traders hawking their wares and street-chefs proclaiming their food mixed in with the pounding and clanging of the ever ongoing industry within the city. Chimneys belched smoke, furnaces roared, huge flywheels rumbled as they drove massive pistons back and forth, powering the machines and factories of Ferra. While the air was not as stale as that he had just left, it was full of the smells of a city; the aromas of food from all over the continent with their own distinct spices interlaced with the sharp tang of the refuse on the street, and always underlying them were the fumes unique to the Manufactorum.

He shuffled down the ramp with the others, like cattle at a market. People like that filled him with disgust. Even though Ferra had remained neutral in the war which now swept the continents, the influx of jobseekers and refugees was filling it with seething humanity and had laid waste to it nevertheless. This was no longer the Iron City, birthplace of the Manufactorum, one of the Five Great Cities, as portrayed in the histories. This was a spoil heap of the world; the iron had corroded. Watching the newcomers flocking to the food stalls, bartering for meagre portions with the valuables they had guarded so closely on the journey here evoked nothing within him. He had no pity for the families with gaunt children that filled the doorways of nearby boarded up shops and houses, their faces streaked with grime from the steam vents that lined the gutters.

The war would drag Ferra in sooner or later, and by the end of the next cycle most of them would be dead or dying; of that, he was certain. He strode down the street, ignoring the cries of pedlars and pleas of beggars. There was work to be done, and while strictly speaking it was against the Charter that Seals were issued with time constraints, the Magister had nevertheless made it clear that this Seal was to be carried out as swiftly as possible. Somewhere to sleep, somewhere to watch and somewhere to hide, he would need all of these later but somewhere to sleep was most important at this time.

 

The hunter amongst the prey

While I wouldn’t be able to include this directly within the story, below is effectively the “Arrival of an Assassin” introduction told from a completely different viewpoint and voice.

I noticed him when he got on the transport; he wasn’t like the rest of us. I mean, he looked normal enough – a little taller, perhaps, and broader than some of the men there, but certainly not some hulking giant. No, it wasn’t that which caught my eye; it was the way he moved. He looked solid, hard like rock, but when he moved it was like water. My family comes from the Destria Plains, and he reminded me of the predators that we had out there; graceful, and deadly. And like them, when he stopped moving, he disappeared. Not literally of course, that would sure have caused a commotion given how cramped we were in that dank cabin, but he just blended in. If I hadn’t been staring at the hatch when he came in I probably wouldn’t have even noticed him, and I doubt any of the others did.

Once or twice during the journey, when my mind started to wander, thinking about Ferra and the work I would be able to get there, I lost track of him. I panicked and it took me some time to find him again although he never moved from his spot. It was as if your eyes just slid off him unless you concentrated. It wasn’t magic though, and he didn’t look like any sort of Arcanist.

The more I watched him, the more he seemed to differ from everyone else there. Where the other passengers bore the haunted look of refugees who had seen too much, or wore their excitement all over their faces, he had nothing. His face was completely impassive, and I mean completely. Usually when people try to look like that to impress or intimidate others they look stern or irritated, but not him. He also barely moved a muscle for the entire trip as far as I could tell. He rocked with the motion of the ‘steamer like the rest of us, but he didn’t shift position. Only when we had stopped did he start looking like something other than a mannequin. He took one look around him, and I’m sure that for a second he looked repulsed by us. No, perhaps not repulsed, more like a look of contempt. I looked away then; I didn’t want to be noticed.

I lost sight of him as we moved down the ramp, steam from the engines wafting over us, people jostling and peering around trying to get a look at everything, perhaps looking for people to meet them. As I joined a crowd surrounding a curried meat stall, I looked down the main street leading from the station and caught sight of him once more. Again I was put in mind of a great cat of the plains, only he didn’t seem to be on the prowl; I realised that he was stalking his prey already. The crowd shifted, someone jostled me, and I could see him no longer. In some small way, I felt relieved.