The Ruby Jewel was the highlight of the southeastern reaches of Terminus, half dedicated to loading and unloading shipments the airships from Elata Spiritus and half dedicated to upper-crust shopping. Buildings were tightly packed, deep red brick faced in iron and bronze, multi-tiered. The main road was for foot traffic only, and it wound sharply side to side. A second road cut straight down the center, made for wagons, carriages, and automobiles.
In one window display, a dozen gems of different colors sparkled in the sunlight, set into gold and silver jewelry, even boasting one slender chain of auritium, its sheen faintly different to normal gold. There was no name above the door, simply a wooden sign painted with a large diamond. Inside, a portly velen stood behind a counter. A young enlil couple browsed the jewelry in one corner, whispering to each other and giggling. An older laicar woman with jet-black hair and a fine dress perused the necklaces at another case. A uniformed guard stood in the opposite corner, a broad-shouldered laicar; although unarmed, his mere presence would deter most would-be thieves, well worth the cost of hiring the Conexus for protection. The final occupant was an older enlil in a white lab coat. He seemed out of place, with no shirt under the coat and simple canvas pants cinched with a rope in place of a belt. The owner waved the guard back when he moved to usher the unusual visitor out.
Naevius, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses, chatted amiably with the portly owner as if they went way back. The owner, however, seemed nervous and twitchy by comparison, whispering his responses while his eyes darted around. Eventually, the guard decided that they must have been old friends and the owner was ashamed of the enlil's disheveled appearance. His attention to the conversation lapsed, and that's when Naevius casually placed a small vial full of tiny crystals on the counter, which the owner promptly whisked away and slipped into a pocket.
"To tell the truth, I'm in the market for obsidian. I know it's a rather common stone compared to your usual stock, but I want to be sure it's pure, you see."
"Obsidian," the owner, Iconof, repeated. "I have some, but nothing especially rare. As to purity, I couldn't say." Now that the vial was safely hidden away, his words were steadier, but his face still seemed flushed. "Stay here a moment, I'll bring out some samples."
Naevius nodded and then reached into one of the outer pockets of his lab coat, withdrawing a whole bottle of Aridusian whiskey. "May I?" he asked, flashing a toothy grin. Iconof blinked a few times but then nodded his assent. The enlil produced three shot glasses, plinking them onto the glass counter. He poured all three full, splashing a little onto the counter. With one talon, he flicked the third glass down the counter toward the guard. "I won't tell," he promised, lifting up the bottle for the man to see.
A knowing smirk appeared on the guard's lips and he spared a quick look around before taking the glass. He and Naevius mimed a toast in the open air and then tossed back the fiery drink. "Ah! That's the stuff!" He laughed. "Another?"
The guard casually tossed the glass back toward Naevius. "Thanks, but if I have two, I'll want three. I'm on duty, friend."
Iconof started shuffling back, so Naevius smiled at the guard and lifted up a finger, as though to say it was their secret, and refilled his own shot glass. The remaining glass disappeared somewhere in his many discrete pockets. The velen owner returned, then, carrying a shallow, felt-lined tray covered in a variety of samples of obsidian.
"Quite the collection," Naevius remarked, eyes widening behind his shades. He had expected a handful, at most. Iconof dealt mostly in gemstones and jewelry, and obsidian was in rare demand there.
"It accumulates over time," Iconof explained, laughing. His belly jiggled, reminding Naevius that it had been nearly an hour since he had eaten. "As you might guess, it doesn't sell quickly. By far the nicest piece I have is this one."
The mineraloid was smooth, rounded, a deep black with white speckles throughout. "Snowflake obsidian. Quite pretty, and I daresay it would be a beauty to complement the raven locks of your guest over there, perhaps in a silver brooch," Naevius replied smoothly. He lifted his second shot to his lips and knocked it back. The remaining glass, there for Iconof, remained untouched. The older laicar woman looked over, a flush of surprise on her cheeks. She leaned over, curious to see what they were referring to. "The white flecks are made of cristobalite, you know. Unfortunately, chemically, the cristobalite counteracts what I need the obsidian for."
"I don't suppose this piece would suit, then, for the same reason?" Iconof was holding up a large piece with a golden sheen.
Naevius smiled and tapped a talon to the stone. "That, and these," he said, tapping a few others, "is actually formed by gas bubbles rather than the inclusion of another mineral. It captures the light in quite spectacular ways, but sadly these don't seem to be what I need, either. What about…"
"How about this one? This is so pure it glimmers like black oil."
Naevius considered it, then produced a small dish and place it on the counter. "That one might just do the trick, but I need to perform a test, if I may." From a different pocket, he produced a fine white sand, tapping out a thin layer into the dish. He waved to it and Iconof set the piece, a cylindrical rod of pure black, into it. There was no reaction whatsoever.
"Is that… good?"
"A moment," Naevius said, a little short. He then held a hand over the dish and slowly smiled. "Mm, that might work. Feel for yourself."
Iconof did as instructed. The air above the dish was warm, bordering on hot.
"It should be enough to do the job," Naevius decided. He was about to pluck the rod of volcanic glass from the dish but then one of the other pieces caught his eye. "Wait, let me see that one there."
"But I thought you needed pure obsidian? Even I can tell this is anything but…" Despite his confusion, Iconof lifted out the sphere Naevius indicated.
Naevius took the orb in hand and laughed in disbelief. "Where did you find this?" He turned it over and around in his hand, marveling at the iridescent patterns, showing wavy lines of deep violet and gold mingling with the jet black obsidian. "Do you know what this is?"
"Rainbow obsidian," Iconof replied, confused. He waved at his box of samples. "Most of these are rainbow." That was fitting for a jeweler, of course.
"Yes, but it's so much more!" Naevius laughed and snatched up Iconof's untouched glass of whiskey, gulping it down before laughing again. Looking into Iconof's box, he plucked another piece of rainbow obsidian and held it up to the first. The second one had a unique heart shape to it and brighter colors, pinks and blues and reds. "A piece of rainbow obsidian like this is gorgeous, fit for the neck of a lovely bird like the one over yonder. See how the colors shimmer, how they shine, escaping the dark ocean that surrounds them, like joy set free! This other stone, meanwhile, is old and sober, the colors striking but fixed, deep, and regal."
"You're talking nonsense, now!" Iconof sputtered. The enlil couple was looking over curiously, and the laicar lady had turned their way once again as well. "Get on with it then, what's the difference?"
Naevius set down the heart-shaped piece and held up the orb smiling. "Obsidian principum, don't you see? Obsidian formed during the Cataclysm, it doesn't just hold crystals of pyroxenes like your typical rainbow obsidian, it holds regia magnetite -- a precursor to terra regia, rare but with few applications. And, just watch!" Gingerly, Naevius set the small mineraloid into the dish with the white sand. Quickly he pulled his fingers away, and just in time! The thin layer of sand ignited on contact, burning in a rainbow of hues for a few seconds before snuffing out.
"That blacksmith girl doesn't know how lucky she is that I've found a rare sample like this," Naevius remarked, reaching out for the obsidian.
Iconof suddenly put a palm out over it. "Don't be so hasty! If it's really as rare as you say, I can't give it away for just one… for just old times' sake," Iconof protested. "You said the pure obsidian was good enough, right?"
The smile vanished from the older enlil's lips. "Really? I didn't know our friendship was so cheap, Iconof. It's your business, I'll abide your decision, but I would hate to end our relationship on a sour note like this."
The guard was watching curiously from his corner, unclear on what was going on. Iconof felt a sweat building and nervously loosened the collar of his shirt. He was painfully aware that all eyes were on him. "Naev, my friend, you know I'm only joking! Don't get so mopey!"
The smile returned as if it had never left. Naevius shoved Iconof's hand out of the way, plucking the obsidian orb and stowing it away with the dish and the rest of the white sand. "This calls for a quick celebration. There was a sudden clatter as three more shot glasses appeared on the countertop. Naevius splashed a dash of the Aridusian whiskey into all five glasses and waved the other customers over. "Come, come, sir and m'lady; join us, madam! For shame, I have no fine wine, but assure you no pub draughts here!"
By the time Naevius left, Iconof's disappointment had been smoothed over. The laicar woman had been won over by the enlil's charm and asked for the snowflake obsidian to be set into a necklace. The young man meanwhile, had asked for the heart-shaped obsidian to be cut into two matching halves to share with his lady. Both were stones that would likely have set in a back room, untouched. The guard, meanwhile, got to end his shift with a half-full bottle of whiskey tucked under his tabard.
The wild-haired enlil was quite satisfied, himself. For a bigat's worth of chemical reagents, a few hours of his time, and a bottle of whiskey, he had made new friends and had everything he needed to fulfill his end of the bargain with the blacksmith. He'd even talked Iconof out of a plain band of auritium with the promise of a bigger supply on his next visit.
It was almost a shame to waste a piece of obsidian principum on such a mundane thing as blacksmithing. Despite the rarity, however, its practical uses were rather niche and with a piece this size, settling easy into the center of his palm, there wasn't much else it could be used for. He hoped the girl would appreciate the end result.
Naevius made his way to nearly the opposite end of the Ruby Jewel, stopping in front of a fine restaurant. Touch of the Sky specialized in Borean cuisine and even from outside, the smells achingly tugged at his stomach and his heartstrings. It had been far too long since he'd enjoyed the taste of home.
A doorman stopped him briefly, but a quick flashing of exa and he was ushered inside. He knew his attire wasn't fit for such an establishment, but as long as he had money, they wouldn't turn him away.
"Excuse me, please forgive my manner--"
"No, I've no care for your honeyed words, good sir! We run a respectable establishment here!" The snooty, green-feathered enlil made shooing motions toward the door.
"Good sir, I realize my attire is unusual, but--"
The green enlil -- Faealus according to a portrait on the wall -- continued shooing. "No excuses or sad stories, just out with you!"
"I'm no beggar or vagrant, good sir. I have money, as you can see…"
Sniffing haughtily, Faealus shoved away the handful of aurits. "It would tarnish our reputation to allow you--"
"Ah good evening, Faealus dear! And Mister Squalidus, I did not expect to see you again so soon!"
"Madam Olinas, what a pleasure! Though it was only moments, certainly it feels ages since we parted!" Naevius replied with a polite smile. He pulled his shades down his nose and peered at the necklace around the laicar woman's neck, silver wire cradling snowflake obsidian. "My my, it may have been I who suggested it, but I did not anticipate just how the new necklace draws attention to your beauty and complements your ensemble."
Olinas laughed good-naturedly, recognizing flattery for what it was, but enjoying it nonetheless. "I fear you'll bring a blush to this old woman's face, dear."
Naevius looked around, feigning confusion. "Have you brought a friend? I see no old woman here."
Smiling, Olinas turned to Faealas and stage-whispered, "Be careful of this one, he might sweep your wife right off her feet and you with her!" To Naevius, she asked, "Will you be dining tonight? I have some friends who would love to meet you."
With a pointed look to Faealus, Naevius sighed, "It would be my pleasure sometime anon, but I fear me I will have to return home for more proper clothing first."
A faint blush appeared and the woman tittered. "Oh my, yes, I can see how that would be… distracting. Oh! Faealas, he seems close in stature. Perhaps you could be a dear and allow Mister Squalidus to borrow something of yours?"
"Of course, my lady," Faealus replied, showing no sign whatsoever of his distaste for the idea. The smug smile fled from Naevius' face when the green enlil followed with, "Why, the Squalidus family are some of our most-esteemed guests! I would be happy to assist good Naevius here in any way I can."
"Wonderful! Perhaps I shall see you after dinner, good sirs."
"Right this way," Faealus said, a rather unsettling smile on his lips as he led Naevius down a side hallway.
Despite his growing discomfort, Naevius smiled. "Your demeanor seems to have shifted quite readily."
"I did not wish to disturb Miss Olinas, but she obviously does not know you."
Naevius quirked his head to one side. "About that. I don't recall offering my given name…" He left the statement open-ended, allowing Faealus to fill in the blanks.
"After the scene you caused last time you were here, I daresay I'd never forget it."
The color drained from Naevius. "I was here before?" He looked around as if lost. "I've no memory of it," he admitted. That did not bode well.
Faealus snorted and stopped in front of a pair of double doors. Pans and utensils could be heard rattling within and delicious smells teased at the senses. "I offer you two choices, Mister Squalidus. I can allow you to order whatever you want from the menu, but you will eat down here, in the staff's breakroom."
"Or you can boot me out the door," Naevius ventured. Faealus didn't dispute that so he shrugged and smiled. "I welcome your offer. I came seeking good food more than good company. For what it's worth, I apologize for… whatever… happened before."
"So you have said," Faealus replied wearily. "Have a seat." He opened one of the double doors. Surprisingly each door went to a different room, with the other one presumably going to the kitchen itself. The breakroom Naevius walked into was plain but nice, clean. There were two long tables with benches and along the back wall a series of small cots hung from the wall. Two of them were occupied, but the occupants didn't acknowledge him. Otherwise, he was alone. Faealus disappeared into the kitchen to explain the situation to the staff.
"Works out better for me," Naevius muttered aloud. He could pretend to be a gentleman when it was necessary, but didn't relish the idea of doing so all night long. High society was a mixed bag and left him with mixed feelings. He yearned for the finer things in life: fine food, fine spirits, fine women. The trappings of appearances, decorum, and politeness did not interest him, though.
A few moments later, a nervous server came into the room with a menu. Naevius didn't even take a look before he began ordering. "Aih vobavi to start, then hulone done and vurifune zuba, with lushum rood on the side. Bring me a bottle of red, house's choice, and anything on tap to start with. Have you got all that?" The poor server looked utterly flabbergasted, scribbling quickly. Naevius spared a glance at the menu and laughed. "What? All the dishes are named in common? You don't know eloian, son?"
"I do, sir, just give me a second… ok. That's aye vobah--"
"Read it back in common. Your pronunciation is murder to my ears."
Relieved, in spite of the insult, the young enlil started over. "Fish sausage, spiced lobster, steamed crab, and tiger tear salad. A bottle of red wine and a choice from our on-tap selection."
"Perfect," Naevius said, honestly impressed. Eloian wasn't taught as much as it ought to have been, and if the restaurant used the common names, there'd be no reason to learn it. "What's your name?"
"Rinson, sir," the youth responded. Naevius got a good look at him for the first time: young, a teen perhaps, and with spotted grey feathers. A product of good stock from Astrum, most likely. "If you'd take a suggestion, sir, the selections on tap are either fruity or flavorless. You might prefer a bottle of Tojihunnud Zephii."
A toothy grin appeared on the chemist's lips and the straight-faced server briefly smiled back before resuming a professional air. "That sounds fantastic, actually. I haven't had a good Toji since my university days. Bring two, Rinson." The youth marked the change on his paper and then slipped away.
Naevius pulled the piece of obsidian principum from his pocket, rolling it over in his talons to watch how it shimmered. The purpose of the obsidian was to have a permanent fixture with a 'memory' of pyroclastic heat, and the principum had that in abundance, in excess. Contrary to most gems, obsidian was mineraloid, not mineral, and over time it would lose its identity. Being five hundred years old, it would normally have been useless for his purposes. The inclusions of regia magnetite, however, slowed that aging process. Furthermore, they would serve as a bridge between the band of auritium and the obsidian itself.
Thankfully Iconof had no clue what he was holding, and Naevius hoped he wasn't curious enough to look into it. While it was true enough that there were few practical applications for such a piece, it would easily run prices closer to fine rubies. Naevius pulled out a small, rectangular tray; he placed the obsidian, a vial of auritium pulveris, the ring band of auritium lateris, a standing magnifying glass with clamps, a small jar of adhesive, and several thin metallic instruments.
Before he could get started, Rinson swept in, bringing a heaping basket of steaming bread rolls, a frosty mug, and two ice-cold beer bottles. The youth didn't say a word about the tools spread out; instead, he popped the first beer open, a golden lager from the island of Zephii, and left without a word. Naevius made a mental note to give the young man a sizable tip as he wolfed down the first roll, then another, washing them down with a hearty swig of lager straight from the bottle. The rest of the bottle went into the mug and then Naevius was focusing on the work at hand again. He removed his shades, revealing bright orange irises, and pulled a magnifying headpiece out. He clamped the auritium band onto the standing magnifying glass, lining up his headpiece with the standing glass, and taking one of the fine metal instruments in hand. He slowly and methodically began etching the metal, pausing to swallow more bread and beer periodically.
By the time Rinson returned with the lushum rood -- a spicy dish of chilled leafy greens, pickled onions, and grilled strips of meat over cold rice, considered a 'salad' -- Naevius had emptied the bread basket. He had also etched spell matrices over the majority of the outer surface of the ring band. He slipped the head magnifiers off and took a break to ravenously dig into the salad, savoring the interplay of heat and cold, the lingering spices on his tongue conjuring up nostalgic memories of home. Perhaps he ought to plan a trip back to visit the family?
Rinson brought more bread and a third bottle without being asked, followed soon after by the fish sausage and the bottle of red wine, also from Zephii. In the same way Naevius had marked the boy as Astrum-born, Rinson must have done the same. His respect for the youth went up. Naevius alternated between wine and beer, eating his food almost as quickly as it came out. The crab legs, especially, reminded him of home: no spices, no doctoring up, they were pure and simple, steamed over sea water, and served with hot, melted butter. Even as a privileged youth, Naevius had often gone crabbing, cooking them up and eating them right on the sand.
Faealus came in once, shaking his head disdainfully at seeing all the apparatuses spread out, but he seemed content that Naevius wasn't causing a scene.
After the outer ring, Naevius set to etching a different set of matrices into the inner band. The outer was to harness the heat, recreating the 'memory' of pyroclastic flows and molten rock, while the inner was to diffuse the same, to protect the wearer. It was a play on a simple toy he had made long, long ago, one of his earliest enchanting experiments. He remembered wearing a simple iron ring and launching fireworks down the beaches while his friends all laughed.
The one he was making now was infinitely more complex. The protective element was something he did not include as a kid, and some of the little scars on his hand were from that particular lesson.
Other servers started coming and going, telling Naevius the rough time of night. They stared, but avoided speaking to Naevius, fixated as he was on his work and his meal. At last, the fine detail work was finished and after checking it over for mistakes, Naevius set his magnifiers aside and focused on the rest of his meal, savoring the spicy, grilled lobster tail, the rest of his cooling crab legs, and more of the warm bread. All three bottles of beer had been drained, and the bottle of wine was down to its last quarter.
Rinson came in and sat down, checked visually if Naevius needed anything, then sprawled across the table. "Rough night?" Naevius asked, tapping some pulveris around the etched band of metal. He touched a talon to the metal, whispering something under his breath; the powder was sucked into the metal, filling all the tiny etchings and setting them sparkling.
"Always," Rinson replied, a tired, toothy smile appearing. "Mister Faealus only hires the best, but it means we're always short-handed."
"Sounds like you need a pick-me-up," Naevius noted. He slid his untouched glass of water toward the kid and fished into a pocket for a small bottle of pure white crystals, plopping it down on the table. "Stir in two spoonfuls, you'll be right as rain." At the dubious look, Naevius laughed. "Perfectly legal, kiddo. It's purified caffeine. If you're brave, you can skip the water and take it directly, but it's bitter as fuck."
Rinson considered for a moment and then curiously unscrewed the top of the bottle. A tiny metal spoon was attached to the lid. "Two of these?" The spoon held barely more than a pinhead.
"It's very pure," Naevius replied. To demonstrate its safety, he took the cap and dropped two tiny spoonfuls on the back of his hand, licking it up. He hadn’t exaggerated the bitterness and his face puckered briefly, but the rush of energy was immediate, and a shudder rushed down the chemist's spine. "Just be ready to down a beer in about four hours to offset the headache that will follow."
"I think I can manage that," Rinson replied. He dropped two spoonfuls of the caffeine into the water glass, then stirred with his finger. "I've been trying not to ask, but what are you working at here?" He tilted his head back and chugged the entire glass of water in one go.
"Business," Naevius explained in brief. "I am creating a device which will heat metal without harming the wearer.
"Out of a ring and black glass?"
"Plus terra regia and regia magnetite. The art of Cantatus, you know," Naevius said with a smile. The finer details would take a lot longer to explain.
"Enchanting, huh? I thought there was more mysticism involved in that. You've been working with hand tools and such." Already, Rinson looked like he was perking back up.
"Mm, there can be. I'm more of a scientist myself, so my approach is different, but don't mock enchanters too quickly. Can't argue with results, right?" Naevius held the magnifying headpiece up to Rinson and had the youth look at the intricate web of engravings on the ring. "It's all applied knowledge."
"No kidding. Speaking of results, this 'caffeine' is working a miracle."
Naevius laughed. "I swear it is actually caffeine. Don't say it like that."
Rinson grinned and stood back up. "My break's just about over. Anything else I can get you? Dessert, maybe?"
"Coffee, cream, sugar, and a plate of fruit. Then the bill."
Rinson zipped away and soon enough Naevius was alone once again. He lifted up the final tool he had not used, yet, a small metal hammer. One side was flat, the other spiked. Taking the obsidian orb between two talons, he lifted the hammer and brought it down spike-first. With a harsh snap, the rare mineraloid shattered into pieces. From the broken remnants, Naevius selected the best pieces and chipped away until they were the size and shape he wanted.
Rinson came in with his coffee and fruit. He paused to eat some of the melon and grapes.
He opened the jar of adhesive, and slowly, methodically, began layering the obsidian shards around the outer rim of the ring band, covering the first set of matrices. Once the entire outer layer was covered, Naevius used an abrasive cloth to smooth all the pieces together. The rest of the necessary pulveris was poured into the center of the ring. Naevius pressed his fingers to the ring again and whispered under his breath. The rest of the pulveris flared in brightness, then all of the light rushed into the ring itself, leaving behind dull grey sand.
Pouring an ample amount of sugar and cream into the coffee, Naevius sipped at the hot beverage while looking over the ring checking it for flaws. Perfect, he thought to himself, and for far less than the price of the meal he'd just eaten. He packed everything away, sliding the ring itself onto a talon.
Dropping two aurits and a handful of bigats, well in excess of the meal's cost, Naevius rose and headed to the exit. He was met there by Faealus. "Mister Squalidus," the green-feathered avian said stiffly. "Thank you for your visit. I trust the food was to your satisfaction?"
"Fantastic, good sir." He didn't even mention the rude greeting.
"I must ask, though. Mister Rinson has been acting… abnormally. What did you do?" Faealus dropped formalities at the end, obviously suspecting something heinous.
A polite smile spread. Naevius pulled the rest of the bottle of crystalline caffeine from his lab coat, placing it in Faealus' talon. "Purified caffeine crystals. No more than two spoonfuls at a time. It will give a headache in four to five hours after taking it, so be prepared. Perfectly legal, no other side-effects. Consider that bottle a belated apology for any unpleasantness my prior visit may have caused."
While Faealus struggled to find a response, Naevius started walking himself out. He assumed the owner would approve its use, the servers would enjoy the pick-me-up, and eventually the bottle would run out. There was only one place they could get a replacement from.
"Ah, lady Olinas! What fortunate timing! I fear I missed you throughout the evening, but perhaps I could walk you and your lovely companions to your coach?"