Deals and Trades
Keydis looked in the open wooden box at the rare mineral. Glimmering like an emerald, but solid metal rather than a gemstone. The piece she carried was hardly larger than a playing card and about as thick as five cards stacked together. The brunette let out a giddy laugh, though: it was the last bit she needed.
She was walking down the cobbled street in one of the south-central districts in Terminus, on her way back to her shop, such as it was. Any normal person carrying a piece so valuable might be more cautious about waving it around, but Keydis had her sword on her belt and a reputation already built up. One look at the spiky brown hair, with its red-dyed bangs, and most of the petty thieves backed off. If more organized thugs got uppity, she believed she could handle herself.
On a whim, Keydis plucked the card of metal out of the container, and tucked the box into the crook of her arm. Her skin tingled wherever it touched the terra regia. She ignored that and tried to bend the card of metal, gritting her teeth. Harder than she expected, Keydis was barely able to start bending it even putting all her strength into it.
"Ma'am!" Keydis lost her concentration and immediately the metal flexed back to straight. She turned to the young enlil rushing up to her. "Don't touch it with your bare hands!"
"I already paid you," Keydis argued. "I'll do what I want with it!"
Nyct huffed and plucked the vitatium from her hands in gloved talons and motioned toward the box. Nyct was young, probably a teen -- not that she could tell for sure -- with red eyes and black feathers; downy bangs fell between their eyes. Slender, probably underfed. Nyct was wearing white pants with red and yellow boots, and what amounted to a black apron with gold trim. The gloves had curious bits of metal and gadgetry stuck to them. "If you end up bedridden with toxic shock, then I won't get to learn anything from you."
"What are you talking about? I paid you. That was a this or that deal."
"No, it was an 'and' deal!" Nyct insisted, feathers bristling.
Keydis frowned and slid the vitatium away, clicking the box closed. "I'll buy some from someone else, then. I don't know the first thing about teaching and I don't want to deal with it." She held the box out and an open hand for the full refund she expected.
The enlil's head shook defiantly. "A deal's a deal! You won't find any more vitatium around here anyway, I looked! And I sold you that piece under market!"
Grumbling a bit, Keydis relented and sighed. "Better get a notebook, then, 'cause those noodle arms don't look like they can lift a hammer." She huffed and stalked off toward the street her shop was on, new 'apprentice' in tow.
The shop was really just an open lot she was renting to park her Dursus Messer in. The six-wheeled truck had come with her all the way from Aridus. It was still a plain dark gray, smooth rounded curves all around. The cab was large enough to seat two comfortably, but the star of the show was the bed of the truck. It had high side walls to begin with, but the old smith she had bought the automobile from had built it into a small workshop, complete with toolboxes, an anvil, a forge, and different tanks for quenching and annealing.
"'Ore Else?'" Nyct read aloud from the side of the truck bed.
Keydis nodded. "My shop name. The best damn weapons, 'Ore Else!'" Spotting someone messing around the vehicle, Keydis suddenly shouted, "Hey! What are you doing over there?"
On all fours by the left front tire of Keydis's truck was a young laicar who, to any passer-by, would have stood out as immediately suspicious. Or at the very least unusual.
The young man's hair was a mess of unkempt dark curls that clearly hadn't seen a brush or comb in a while, and his clothes were a bizarre mashup of conflicting styles – a brown jacket covered in pockets and various smudges and stains from vis-knew-what, a rumpled white button-down with the collar turned up and the buttons misaligned, a pair of fingerless gloves apparently knitted from whatever spools of wool had been lying around at the time, dingy brown carpenter's pants with not one but two tool belts slung from the waist, and a pair of fur-lined clogs. A threadbare scarf was wrapped loosely around his neck.
The laicar startled and looked up at Keydis as she approached, revealing wide, mismatched eyes, freckles scattered across ghostly-pale skin, and two beauty marks beneath the man's right eye. His left eye was as dark as his hair, but the right glowed a vivid blue, its apertures like a drone's aiming reticles – a cybernetic enhancement.
Perseus Artifex blinked up at Keydis. "Oh. Ah. Sorry," he said softly. He blinked (What had she said? He hadn't been listening) again. "I was." He stopped (he'd been distracted; this wasn't what he was supposed to be doing) . "...Looking," he finished, lamely. He stood, and eased back a step from the woman's vehicle.
Keydis stared, mouth open and prepared to say more, but the man's eclectic appearance meant he was probably homeless or down on his luck. The most logical explanation was that he was looking for something to steal, but his utter lack of alarm or guilt -- and utterly non-threatening stature -- made her think it unlikely.
Nyct remained silent behind her, although the enlil had a hand next to their unusual hammer.
Too confused to hang onto her anger, Keydis let it out in a huff and jumped up into the bed of the truck. "I'm Keydis. This is my shop. If you're looking for some kind of blacksmithing, you might be in the right place. I don't know the first thing about tools for robo-eyes, but I can fix you up with the sharpest kitchen knife you've ever seen." She doubted the curious man had any need of weapons or armor.
"Ma'am, shouldn't you at least notify a guard? He could have..." Nyct's lips were pursed, a suspicious look in their eyes, glaring down at the curious visitor.
"And that," Keydis called out from the truck, cutting off Nyct, "is my new apprentice. Apparently." She unlocked the recessed storage contained in the truck bed, setting the box of vitatium inside with the rest of her more valuable supplies. The card of metal joined a spike, three exa coins, an old ring, a bottle of lateris shavings (not pulveris) , and a misshapen lump. Most of the rest of the container was filled with auritium. Keydis locked the container again and slid a different box over top of it.
As her boots hit the ground outside the truck, Keydis folded her arms. "So? Speak up, man."
"Knife?" Perseus stared, wide-eyed at the woman (loud, so loud; demanding, too, and that reminded him of—) . "No. I don't need...I'm not looking for a knife." His gaze flit to the young enlil with the severe look, then quickly to the truck bed. "Or a blacksmith. I'm. I was just," his hand clenched, tight (like the interrogator's fingers around his wrist) in the material of his jacket. "I'm an engineer. Among other...other things. Your vehicle is. It's well-designed. Aridus make."
Perseus stared fixedly at a point halfway across the lot, quiet with regret.
"Not for sale," Keydis replied immediately, turning to smile at the vehicle. "I haven't had it that long, but I'm already pretty attached." With a thoughtful hum, Keydis shrugged and turned back to the truck. "Don't try to take anything apart or I'll take you apart. I know how you tinkers get around new machines! Other than that, I don't mind if you look. Just, stay out of the way."
"What's your name, engineer?" Nyct asked, still suspicious.
An irritated groan rolled out of the brunette laicar where she was climbing back up into the bed of the Messer. "Kid, you've been here for all of five minutes and you're already wearing on my nerves! Step up here into the shop. I thought you wanted to learn how to smith." It seemed like Nyct was going to keep arguing, but finally the youth reluctantly sighed and climbed up into the truck.
"This isn't everything, is it? Shouldn't we go to your real workshop?"
Keydis shook her head. "This is the shop."
Nyct stared incredulously. "Before I sold it to you, you told me you could work in vitatium! You said you could forge with it!"
"I can," the laicar replied, bristling. "The fuck are you trying to say? I didn't ask you to come here!"
The enlil's talons clenched. "I only sold it to you because you said you could forge it! There's no way this junky shop can work vitatium! You lied!"
"The hell I did! You said yourself you don't even know how the fuck to forge this stuff! If you don't like my shop, piss off!"
Teeth gnashing, Nyct suddenly started rushing around the bed of the truck, shoving Keydis out of the way. Each tool and device was inspected, groans and sighs escaping the young enlil. Nyct suddenly shouted over the side of the truck, "Hey! Engineer! How much heat can a brick of magnesium chrome aluminum withstand, with a non-rigidized ceramic liner? How hot can you get with a five burner setup fueled with tricarbane gas?"
Perseus approached the truck bed in spite of himself. "I'm Perseus. It depends on the material purity in the manufacturing process," he said absently, peering in at the portable smithing station. "Twenty-four thousand degrees, on average. Perhaps nineteen-thousand under load. It's...a good firebrick for smithing work."
He paused (dolomite, another word for a refractory brick comprised of approximately sixty-percent magnesium oxide to thirty-percent calcium oxide, well-known for its thermodynamic stability) . "Dolomite bricks would be better. A carbide compound would be best. But. Useless in this setup. You won't reach the temperatures hafnium carbide can endure without a pressurized oxygen-fed chamber. As for. The gas."
Pers tilted his head, thinking (typical temperatures for a tricarbane blown forge averaged just shy of two thousand degrees, and although tricarbane burners were capable of hitting twenty-four hundred degrees if fed oxygen...) . "No," he concluded. He looked at Keydis. "Vitatium is...difficult. Stubborn. It's stability under heat and pressure and potential for conductibility is why it makes for excellent...uhm. Electronic components. Cybernetics, drones. Anyway. You'll need a hotter forge." Then he looked away. "...I should go. I should. Not. Be here."
Keydis stared back blankly while Perseus rattled off words she didn't understand and numbers she had no context for. Nyct, meanwhile stood there smugly nodding, arms folded. The laicar had limited experience with vitatium, back in Aridus, but the setup had been much fancier than her own. Like with auritium, though, she planned to overcome problems with her gear by using more elbow grease.
...you'll need a hotter forge. That part Keydis understood. "Can you build one?" she asked before Perseus left. "Not just one good enough for vitatium. Sooner or later, I'm going to need something that can handle big blue, too."
Nyct bristled and looked prepared to rip out some feathers. "Are you insane?! Don't you realize..."
"...the size of a machine needed to achieve that level of heat would probably be as big as the entire vehicle." Both turned to see another, older enlil standing nearby. Hunched over, the man looked to be middle-aged, with unruly chestnut feathers with splotches of grey. He wore a white lab coat, the name Naevius scrawled on a patch on one breast. No shirt underneath the open coat, it revealed a diamond-shaped grey patch in the feathers on his chest. His baggy canvas pants were cinched around his waist by a rope and he wore no boots over his exposed talons.
He flashed a sharp-toothed grin and bit into some manner of fried street food, slurping noisily. A bag filled with the steaming croquettes was held in the crook of one arm. Keydis met his eyes past the dark glasses over his eyes, trying to read him. Naevius noticed and laughed. "Naevius Squalidus," he introduced himself, before pointing a talon at Perseus. "I'm actually here for him, but I overheard. You're very loud."
Naevius sauntered over, finishing off the first fried ball and half of another in the space of just a few steps. He looked emaciated, like he had been starving for weeks. "Engineers, they do amazing things, but relying on mechanical processes sometimes has limits."
"You could make one that would fit in the back of this thing, but it'd be the only thing back here," Nyct supplied. "You're going to need to invest in a real shop, though."
"Mm, not necessarily. There are... options." Naevius smiled, biting down the third of his snacks and then pulling a dark-sided vial from his coat to chug from. "How familiar are you with the arts of Cantatus?"
Perseus stared owlishly at the newest arrival, forgetting himself for a moment. He watched the Enlil (Naevius, written right there on his coat like a brand, easy to see, easy to read, no need to ask his name even though he'd offered it, and Perseus found that idea appealing; maybe he'd...) chew through more food than Perseus probably ate in an entire day, speaking of the limits of mechanical processes. And then of Cantatus. Enchanting (he thought of his mother) .
Something twisted in his stomach. Pers eased a step away from the enlil, hoping it didn't draw attention to himself. His gaze shifted, somewhat wistfully, to the end of the street. He wanted to leave. He wanted to leave. Naevius had pointed at Perseus, but Pers didn't recognize him. Was he one of the Artifex family's contacts (his stomach twisted harder; he hoped not) ? Could he walk away? Would the man chase him? He didn't want to be chased. A hand strayed up to his mouth, and he chewed quietly on his thumbnail, thinking of Leidan Halbert.
Did this Naevius know enchanting (Perseus needed an alchemist, not an enchanter, but the two weren't unrelated, and Perseus could do neither) ? He looked more like a scientist than a caster, but Perseus wasn't sure. He was no expert when it came to people.
Here, Nyct showed surprising disdain. "Cantatus is half as reliable as alchemy, and alchemists are only good for mixing fuel."
"And brewing," Naevius replied charitably as he waggled his beverage. If he was bothered by being looked down on, he didn't show it.
Keydis took more of an interest, her bushy brows raising as the idea hit her. "Hey, that's right! Nora made a badass flame enchantment on the sword I made for her. I just need to... find her." The brunette's mood visibly drooped.
A confused and uncomfortable silence fell, broken only by the sounds of Naevius chewing. As he swallowed back another swig of his drink, the chemist belched and then cleared his throat. "I happen to know a thing or two of the study, although I consider myself a chemist by trade. Achieving heat that can affect vitatium... I believe it's possible."
Naevius paused, letting the offer dangle for a moment before snatching it away artfully. "No, no, I'm afraid I've far too many things to do and not enough time! I need to entreat the Artifex lad here for some mechanical assistance, need to track down a hardened criminal, and arrange meetings between half a dozen groups in the next three days."
Eyes hidden behind his dark lenses, Naevius watched both Perseus and Keydis, wondering if he might solve two problems at once.
"Who's this criminal?"
Perseus perked up when Naevius declared himself a chemist, but the faint change in expression vanished instantly at the mention of his family name. Still (knowing Perseus by his nomen didn't mean he was personally connected to the Artifex family – many people merely knew the name was associated with high-grade craftsmen) . Still (regardless, Pers needed an alchemist; this man was an alchemist) .
"What mechanical assistance?" he asked, right on Keydis's heels.
Naevius made a show of mock surprise at the sudden interest. The younger enlil glared at him, seeing the ruse for what it was, but he didn't give it much mind. Trickery wasn't necessary, it was just theatrics. The key was to know what he had that another person loved, tempt them with more, tempt them with better. Whether that was more knowledge, better wine, or even hotter fire, feeding that desire would help him fuel his own.
It was all just business.
Naev pulled a rolled paper out of a hidden pocket and tossed it to Keydis. "Niketas Leon. You can see by the bounty notice here that he's no small-time louse. I have my own reasons for wanting him, and when that's through, I might collect the bounty from whatever's left." Flashing a toothy grin and taking another swig from his flask, Naev pondered out loud. "Although in lieu of the bounty coin, perhaps I could create a device which would allow you to work your magic on... vitatium, was it? Would that interest you?" He paused and held up a talon, "One which would fit quite easily on... in your shop, I promise. Think on that a moment."
The enlil put his drink away and pulled an apple from a different pocket, biting into it. He sauntered over and threw an arm around Perseus' shoulders. "Now you, my good man, are supposed to be a savant. I don't need just any old mechanic, I need a virtuoso! See, I have concocted a special chemical here," Naev said, producing a small vial of clear liquid and shaking it in front of Perseus. "It is clear, dries rapidly, produces no odor. Simple water can wash it free should there be a need. What I'm saying is that this stuff is utterly undetectable!"
Naev forced the vial into Perseus' hand and stepped away. "I'm hoping for a device, portable, which can detect the undetectable. I'd be happy to share the secrets of the chemical composition but of course the alchemical transmutations are too valuable to share freely. What is your price for such a device?"
Freed from the man's arm ("Don't touch me," he'd started to say, memories of an interrogation room crawling over him, clutching hard at his heart) , Perseus immediately stumbled a few steps back, putting even more space between them (his skin itched where Naev's arm had been) . He held the vial in both hands (clammy, cold, a common side effect of fear, of the rush of adrenaline known as fight-or-flight) , gripping it tight. His gaze flit nervously from the liquid to Naev, back and forth. His thoughts raced.
Naevius had created a unique type of invisible ink. Or, perhaps phrasing it like that was underselling the effort that had to have gone into developing the alchemical compound – but the concept was the same. Already, Perseus was considering the likelihood that he would be able to construct a device that would work to reveal what was otherwise an undetectable chemical. There were ways to achieve similar effects, but they were primitive compared to what Naev was requesting. Many rudimentary invisible inks relied on chemical reactions of ingredients to heat, writing messages with ingredients that would burn and change color before the surface they had been written on.
What Naevius was asking for was infinitely more complex (but possible, Perseus was fairly certain, depending on the precise makeup up the compound) . Perseus liked it (already his thoughts were moving towards fluorescents, ultraviolet light, the way in which various phosphors produced a radiant, visible light when exposed to ultraviolet radiation) . He stared at the vial of clear liquid, his two-tone gaze unfocused, thoughts turned inward (Neither phosphors nor light on the ultraviolet wavelength were detectable by the naked eye, and yet) . Naevius was unpleasant. Touched without asking, without warning. But.
Pers nodded to himself.
"You're a chemist," he started, slowly. He kept his gaze on the chemical vial. "And. Ingenuitive. I..." Pers' brows furrowed, "...struggle...with certain concepts relating to alchemy. And enchantment. The application of magical concepts to physical structures in general."
Perseus learned from reading; from watching, and imitating, and never from the direct instruction of a single crafter. He learned better on his own, left to his own thoughts and methods. Except in magic. He'd been content to leave it at that. Until recently (until Leidan Halbert, and an interrogation room, and an icy grip around his wrist) .
"If you can instruct me on alchemy, I will craft your device."
"I've been told I'm not a very good student."
Keydis looked over the bounty notice, committing the facial details to memory. The other details were sparing, enough to stir disgust and stoke a fire inside. Niketas Leon didn't sound like the most dangerous target she had ever pursued, but by far he was the most detestable.
Nyct looked at the paper, then at Keydis. "You can't seriously be considering this," the young enlil whispered harshly. "This man is obviously involved in some shady dealings. He's playing you for a fool."
"If he can't hold up his end of the deal, I can claim the bounty for myself," Keydis pointed out.
"That's not what I mean! Well, I mean, that's part of it, but what if he, you know, kills the man?" Nyct asked. "It's on you for handing him over, you know."
Looking over at the scraggly bird, Keydis gave that some consideration. "Bounty pays dead or alive. I'm pretty sure which way our friend intends to collect. Look at what this scum's guilty of." She handed the paper over to Nyct and folded her arms, looking over at Naevius and Perseus. 'I have my own reasons for wanting him' echoed in her mind.
"Abduction, kidnapping, murder, sex-trafficking, slave trade..." Nyct read from the list until it became too difficult to continue. The young enlil handed the paper back.
The weight of the crimes didn't distract Keydis from the reality of what she was agreeing to. She wasn't going to be forcing the man to face justice; she would be handing him over to face vengeance.
In the end, he probably deserved it.
"I'll do it," Keydis declared. "No promises he'll be in one piece, but I'll bring him back alive."
A razor-toothed grin spread. Naevius seemed almost taunting as he pointed out, "It's a big city. Are you sure you can do it?"
"Didn't say I would try, did I? I'll do it," Keydis replied with a scowl. "Just make sure you hold up your end of the bargain or we let the guards do their thing instead."
Naevius cackled briefly and then peeled back one sleeve. Near one feathery elbow, the chemist had multiple silver pendants of some kind. He loosened one and pulled it free, giving it an underhanded toss to Keydis. She caught it, realizing it was a porro vox. "It's already linked to mine. Use it to contact me when you're ready. It will take me at least five days to do my part, though, so don't go too fast!"
Snapping another bite of apple, Naevius turned to Perseus again. "As for you, you're in luck. It's almost another lifetime ago, but I once taught alchemy at the premier academy in the great city of Astrum. If you can learn, I'm positive I can teach you!" Biting straight through the core, Naevius noisily chomped and slurped before continuing. "It does pose a dilemma, however, as I need that device within the next three days, I have five days to devise a heat source for the lady blacksmith, and it will surely take at least three days to teach you alchemy.
"So what say you? Can you work under those conditions, knowing I cannot repay my end of the bargain for several more days?"
"You eat a lot." Pers stared at the apple in Naev's hand, marred from the enlil's sharp teeth. "Yes. I can wait. It's better that way. If I were to do anything else...anything else first, I'd be distracted by your project."
His gaze lifted to Naev, and he watched him somewhat warily. "You aren't going to. Throw anything. At me. Are you?"
"Great minds demand greater fuel," Naevius said by way of explanation before finishing off the apple, swallowing core, seeds, stem, and all. The fact that the seeds were a potential source of cyanide tickled the chemist's humor for some reason, even knowing the amount he'd ingested was utterly harmless. Despite all he had eaten, he still looked emaciated, lending credence to his implication that all the calories went to fueling his mad brain. "I'll only throw things when you lose focus, so it really depends on you." He tapped a talon to the peculiar inventor's chest.
Things had gone better than expected, and although Naevius was certainly getting what he wanted, he would wager that everyone was coming out a winner in the arrangement. Everyone except Niketas Leon.
"Very well, good Perseus. I know where to find you, so I'll be in touch." Naevius flashed his raptor grin up at Keydis. "If you don't know how to use..."
"I do," Keydis said, bristling at the insult.
"Good. Then I need only ask one more thing!"
The brunette pursed her lips and rolled a hand. "Go on."
"Are you serious about this name, Ore Else? You know you don't have to go with the very first thing that you think of!"
"Fuck you!" Keydis retorted, laughing and throwing a dirty rag at the chemist. He laughed as well, ducking and then backing away from the truck.
"Give it some more thought!" Naevius called out before turning and shuffling down the road, leaving as abruptly as he had arrived.
Keydis stood for a moment looking at the porro vox, turning it over in her fingers. Nyct frowned and sighed. "I'm never going to get my lessons, am I?"
The brunette gave the enlil a hearty slap on the back -- eliciting a wince -- and smirked. "I do have to see someone first, but like the bird said, it's a big city. You don't find someone by running the streets; you find someone who can narrow the field for you." She turned and ruffled Nyct's feathers. "And while they do that, I'm going to put you to work. Smithing isn't something you learn with your head, you etch the lessons into your muscles!"