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By Jack_Newhouse All Rights Reserved ©


Excerpt from Journey

The dust was beginning to settle from the air as the sun rolled down the sky. The merchant clock-wagons left the road in a curling single file to form a camp around the village’s water mill and winding station. Zarib could picture them settling down, lanterns being hung and meals being prepared for the pot. A merchant’s son would be playing his thumb harp sweetly enough to get him out of the worst chores, while wives and daughters took the laundry down-river for another futile battle against the dust of their journey. He had something else to look towards, though. Gallameot was not a large town, but it was the furthest west that one could find a gondola for the trip to the city, and there was still one on the pier upriver from the mill, its twin gas bags gleaming in the golden westering sun. He adjusted his pack on his upper shoulders, glad he hadn’t had to carry it all the way from Tintalee, and dragged it towards the gondola, muttering under his breath about inertia. He’d been meaning to build a new lightening engine that would take it into account for… precisely a year, now, he realised. There just had never been a good time on the journey, and now he was unlikely to need it again for some time.

“‘Hoy there, sah. You needing a lift?” The gondolier gave him a grin, and Zarib managed a smile as weak as the joke. “Silver helical’s the usual price, but I’ll take a whitespur and a redcrown, from a clockie.” He made it sound like a concession, and again Zarib humoured him.

“I’d like to go into the city. An inn, if you know one not too far from my Guild Hall. Will that cost extra?”

“Oh, ah, that’s quite a way in. A copper crown for the trouble? I’d ask less if you was a master, but we’ll have to wiggle the low way so it gets a little tedious, if you take my meaning.” Zarib didn’t, not quite, but he had the coins, and the flight would be long enough for an explanation. He lay the pack in the cargo tray, making a point of visibly turning off the lightening engine so that the gondolier wouldn’t be surprised by its mass. He counted out the price in smaller coins from his belt pouch, and the gondolier counted them into his own. Zarib felt a little insulted, but supposed it was a sensible precaution when dealing with someone you might never see again. Come to think of it, for the last year he’d taken similar care whenever he was paid by one of his employers.

The passenger seats were a shallow bowl, like a bird’s nest, with cushions to sit on and a canopy stretched between the twin gas bags above. He clambered over the side and sat in the very middle of the bowl.

“You ever flown before, sah?” Zarib shook his head. “Don’t you worry, it’s nice and easy. Just don’t sit too close to the edge, and if you need to chuck, try and do it over the side, will you?” Zarib turned back to glare at the gondolier for his callousness, but he was already peering at his control panel, one hand on a lever. As he pushed it upwards, the frame of the gondola gave several quiet groans, the load it was under changing weight and inertia as the engine engaged. “Quite a weight you got there,” the gondolier observed. “What’re you carrying, lead bars?”

“Brass blanks, mainly.”

“Oh, ah, just my luck, a day out of the shop and I run into a journeyman clockie who carries his own materials.”

The Gondoliers were one of several clockwork-reliant guilds who had longstanding arrangements with the Clockmakers, which included everything from giving a journeyman a seat and a place for his pack on a southbound wagon, up to offering a discount on sole use of a difficult and costly method of transport. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, something any of them had to do, but it greased the wheels, as his master used to say. In return, Zarib would take a look at whatever problems they had with their machinery, or give a good word about their guild when he returned to his own.

As the lever rose, Zarib began to feel the action of the clockwork in the pit of his stomach, as though he was in a cart rolling down a hill. He’d felt such sensations before, but never under the influence of clockwork. Lightening engines of such intensities required careful use and support equipment. Poor planning could result in the user falling into the sky, only to plummet back to earth when the clockwork wore down. He tried not to think of that, and was suddenly, irrationally glad of the cloth between him and the sky, now light enough to billow with the slightest breeze, waving languidly above him.

“All right, then, up we go.” The gondolier was a deft hand with his vessel, the skids coming off the pier almost precisely on his last word. They bumped back almost immediately, but only for a moment, and then the gondola was rising steadily into the twilight sky. The gondolier bent to his pedals, adding more tension to the mainspring even as the great propeller at the rear of the craft came to life, sending the gondola darting forwards over the millpond like a bolt from a bow.

By the time Zarib gathered the courage to peer over the edge of the bowl. Gallameot was just a warm little cluster of lights in the distance, a nearer and brighter mirror of the stars above. Ahead the peaks of the mountains loomed up like a row of flames in the sunset light, their lower flanks already dark. The fields of wheat below were a dark blur, and Zarib only looked at them for a moment before pulling back, trying desperately not to think of the fall between the gondola and the ground. Folk said dumans were kin to dragons, but the same sentiment was expressed about humans and bears, and having seen both on his travels, Zarib was sure that a human wouldn’t be any more comfortable snatching fish from chilly mountain rapids than he was to take flight. After a few moments at the centre of the bowl to catch his breath, though, he leaned forwards again, peering ahead at the shadowed lower slopes of the mountains. Somewhere there was the mouth of a valley, leading up to his destination, though in this light there was little chance of seeing it. He didn’t let that stop him. He’d been travelling for a year with this city in mind, and dreaming of it most of his life. Knowing that he was on the last leg of his journey was enough to keep him looking ahead for the city’s lights in the dusk.

He woke with a start, surprised that he had been asleep. The propeller behind him was still whirring softly, the frame of the gondola creaking slightly and the gondolier breathing steadily as he pedaled, a rhythm that in retrospect was rather soothing. The darkness of night had closed in while he napped, and a fog had risen as well, leaving them in an isolated bubble of light, through which the droplets of fog streamed and sparkled.

“Ah, you’re awake. Nearly at the city, so I slowed down a little. Don’t want to run into anything in this fog.”

“Is this normal?”

“Oh, ah, comes boiling off the lake with sunset. You’ll get used to it. It’s nice, really, with the lights of the city and the bridges and all.” They travelled on in silence for a moment, until Zarib remembered something else he was going to ask.

“What did you mean about, uh… wiggling the low way?”

“Oh, well, sumsherry laws and all that, can’t take you above the bridges unless you’ve got a banner of your own. Master clockmakers get one, but journeymen don’t, so we got to wiggle through the streets under the bridges. It’s a bugger, but them’s the rules.”

Sumptuary laws. Well, Zarib was in a clockmaker blue tunic and hose, all simple linen and wool with a competent cut. No one back home had ever bothered much about such things, though the line between well-off and poor was usually as simple as seeing whether or not people had rock dust from the mines on their feet, and the Rai in his manor was the only one who could afford silks of any cut. Maragalla, though… the streets were not, of course, actually paved with gold, but he suspected they could be, if the whim should strike the king so. As it was, the city was rich enough that distinctions would have to be made between those of similar wealth but different stations, he supposed. In any case, all going well, he would soon have the only adornment he wished to have, the gold cog pin of a master clockmaker. He allowed himself a small smile. He’d sworn to himself that he wouldn’t get his hopes up. It was hard not to, this close.

“Ah, there we are. Maragalla!” The gondolier said. Zarib wondered what he was talking about for a moment, and then he saw it too: a low, hard edged mound rising through the fog ahead of them. As they crept closer it resolved into a stepped pyramid, its corners less sharp than right angles. A tiered, hexagonal building, what was called a sede, eight city blocks stacked atop one another with a noble’s townhouse at the crown. He’d read about them, and heard stories from merchants who had visited the city. His master had even told him a little, though his training there had been decades ago, and he always muttered how much it must have changed.

As they swooped in between two of the sedes, Zarib could see the carvings that covered the walls, indistinct through the fog but still stunning in scale. Animals, the heraldic badge of the family that had built the sede, marched around each tier, some in natural poses, others aping men. When the gondola passed under the first bridge between sedes, he could see the carvings that arced up overhead, with a battle in stone raging at the peak of the bridge. Some sort of small mammal, and what he thought might be salmon, throwing themselves at each other, some with tooth and claw, some armed as lancers. The bridge passed overhead, and soon they were turning into another street. Wiggling was the perfect description for it, jinking from street to street between the sedes, always low enough to pass under the finely carved bridges. As they travelled the sedes were adorned more and more with lights, clockwork sunglows illuminating the upper tiers. The lower city remained in darkness, what light it received trickling down from the wealthier layers, though occasionally Zarib could see an oil lantern in a doorway or swinging in a pedestrian’s hand.

For all its grandeur, the city was eerily silent, in a way that could not be entirely explained by the blanket of fog. The sounds of the gondola were louder than anything else, and he thought there should have at least been footsteps, or music, or the whine of poorly built clockwork. It was as though the city was asleep, at a time when even a country village would still be awake.

“It’s very quiet,” he said, the loudest sound for a minute or more.

“Oh, ah, well, there’s hardly anyone here. Big arrival happens in a few days, and until then there’s just a few servants clearing out all the dust up top. Lowtown inns are in the middle of the sede, where it’s easier to keep warm, so we won’t hear them none up here.”

A guard with a globe lantern peered over the edge of a bridge, silently watching their gondola ghost through the mist. When Zarib looked back on the other side of the bridge, he had already continued his rounds.

Even the smell of the city was curiously absent. Zarib had passed through other cities, smaller than this one, and all had been a melange of scents, unique to its trades and tastes. Dhorhai had an undertone of hot metal and occasional whiffs of yeasty beer. Banorei had been redolent of spices at its heart, with the smell of grain predominant as one moved to the outskirts. Bahaja was planted all through with fragrant flowering trees, a whim of a past ruler become a local tradition, overpowering all else. Balahir had smelled of the sea it faced, salt and kelp. All had had some hint of the packed dumanity inherent to a Western city. Zarib had heard Maragalla was at least half human, and perhaps that was the difference, but he also knew that Maragalla was a city built on clockwork more than any other in the kingdom. He knew no spells for wiping away a miasma, but perhaps there was something in the libraries of the Guild Hall. It might even simply be that the people here were able to bathe more frequently. Nonetheless, the shrouded city smelled as clean and cold as the snows of the mountains above.

“There we are,” the gondolier said at length. “The one with the dhrahacs all over the place. That’s the sede of the Rei of Upper Galla. Bloodthirsty bastard but he’s got one of the best-placed sedes in town, top of the Forked Market and one over from the East Gate. Crimson Cherry’s a quiet inn, mostly for merchants who just need a place to sleep and a hot bath. I reckon it’ll suit you nicely, and the Guild Sede’s just on the other side of Great Bay Sede from here.”

“Will it be expensive?”

“Oh, nah, not for a polite young bloke like you. Likes her place quiet, does Mar Rifiti. Just flash your pin and say please and thank you and suchlike and you’ll be in, no trouble. Go into the sede through the door under the bridge and head straight in until you see the sign of the Crimson Cherry.”

Zarib nodded, fingering the silver cog pin on the breast of his tunic. It’d helped a lot on the journey; people were always happy to see a clockmaker, and when one reached for a nondescript box with a lever on top, even tavern roughs would step quietly. Fire was the least of what might come out of it.

The gondola bumped down hard onto the ledge of the sede, right next to a large carving of a dhrahac stooping with wings folded on a helpless sheep. Weight returned instantly, like a wave of exhaustion upon lying down after a day of hard labour. Zarib’s limbs felt odd as he dragged himself out of the bowl and onto the stone, and even with the little lightening engine engaged, hoisting his pack was a particular trial.

“Thank you for the lift, sah,” he said to the gondolier, bowing his head. The gondolier gave him a broad grin in return.

“Just like that, sah. And it’s my pleasure, for a humble clockie like yourself. Got enough of the other sort.” The gondolier gave a much more informal nod as he engaged the clockwork again, a practised hand letting him lift his machine precisely, slipping off the ledge and into the fog with only the slightest buzz of the engines and the gentle beat of the propeller. Zarib could make out the bags and frame of the little airship as it passed through the arch of the bridge, and then it was gone. Alone in the shrouded dark, Zarib could suddenly feel the chill edge of the night air. He shrugged his pack onto his upper shoulders, pulling it towards the dimly lit archway.

The corridor into which the archway led extended through the entire sede, groin vaulted and lit by dim sunglows at regular intervals. Half way along, at what must have been the centre of the sede, it opened out into a chamber, and he headed towards that.

The interior walls were carved, even here below the bridge, with a long bas-relief of clouds in the sky, dhrahacs soaring between them. The work wasn’t the best, but that it was here at all in a part of the city intended for commoners was a show of considerable wealth and power. But then, so was the construction of any sede; being able to build one was a sign of having the power, as a family, to deserve a seat on the Great Council. Only ninety families had managed it, and their position so close to the Palace showed that the Reis of Upper Galla had been one of the first.

From the central chamber, he could see that the other five corridors had more doors branching off, leading to shops marked with signs and residences without. There were also doors on each of the six walls leading off the chamber. To his immediate left was a pair of bright red cherries enamelled on an oaken door, and he swung towards it, his pack almost orbiting him under its inertia. He wrestled with it for a moment, bringing it to a stop, before he lifted the latch and pushed open the door, stepping into the common room of the Crimson Cherry Inn.

The common room of the Crimson Cherry was a large triangle, two floors high, with its entrance opening onto the broad balconies of the second floor. From there, a staircase led down to the open lower floor. Both were strewn with well-built tables and chairs, with no space for dancing, though a wheelharp was fixed to one wall, music tinkling from its amplifying horn. Cherry wood predominated, a lighter red than the inn’s name suggested. The bar was a long expanse of gleaming cherry, with barrels behind for beer and cheap wine, and smaller casks nestled between them for the liquors and finer wines. There was a scattering of patrons, most in merchant buff, all at tables near the bar. The murmur of conversation was scarcely louder than the music.

A tall human girl, taller at least than Zarib and with broader shoulders than any woman he’d ever known, was bustling around the tables, taking copper spurs and topping up mugs from a tall jug of black beer. She wore the tan-gold and purple-red dress of a member of the Innkeepers’ guild, with a copper tankard pin on her swollen-looking chest. He had heard of breasts, but had never seen a set so large. He shook his head and concentrated on guiding his pack down the stairs. Humans were strange, with the tendrils on their heads, missing limbs and odd swellings, but if that was normal to them, they might see him as just as strange. He would have to get used to them; by all accounts, Maragalla was full of them, and the patrons of the inn bore that out. Only a third were duman, the rest humans with their various shades of pink and brown skin. None of the rest had those swellings, so he supposed they must be males, which made sense given their guild affiliations.

Another human was behind the bar, this one shorter, around the same height as Zarib, with a gold pin on her far more normal looking chest. The black tendrils on her head were pulled back into a tight knot behind her neck. Her skin was a pleasing shade of golden brown, matching the panels of her dress, and her eyes were dark and flinty behind a crisp, professional smile.

“Welcome to the Crimson Cherry. I am the Mar of this inn, Onhela Rifiti. May I ask your name and pleasure?” Her speech was clipped and precise.

“I am Zarib Okerrot, journeyman clockmaker. I desire bed, board and bath, Mar, if you please. I can pay in gold or in service, whichever you may prefer.” He kept his speech formal, as the gondolier had advised. She gave him a considering look.

“Hmm... new in town, I suppose. Well, I'll not tell anyone if you don't. An inn runs on clockwork, it's true, and a journeyman clockmaker about the place would be very handy. Not enough to get you a good room, mind, but two hours a day will fetch you a small room, breakfast and supper, a pint of beer with every meal and a bath every three days. The rest you'll have to pay for, of course, but you'll find our rates decent.” Her brow furrowed. “That is, of course, if you have the skills to match your pin.”

Zarib had been ready for the implied question, and reached into his left pocket. The lightsilver tube he pulled out was unadorned, closed at one end and sealed at the other with thin glass. He gave it a twist, activating the clockwork.

“A sunglow of my own design, though I cannot take any credit for the use of the parabolic mirror.” He shone it at the bar, focussed light reflecting from the polished and varnished bar surface. “My preference is for finework, but my apprenticeship was almost entirely spent on industrial engines in Ashnipatra.” He twisted the tube further, drawing the clockwork from its container. “Of course, as a journeyman, I have no maker's mark of my own, but here you can see Master Ishbal's mark, differenced by the six-pointed star.” Mar Rifiti peered at the compact mass of clockwork, and Zarib grew nervous. He knew it wasn't his best work, just something he'd thrown together for his journey. It had merely been the piece closest to hand, but now that he had it out again he was reminded that he'd used three gears where one would do for the seventh movement, and that the investment on the whole third movement was sloppily asymmetrical, and...

“Well, I... I think if you can perform work of this quality for us, and, and provide your own materials, we can make you a packed lunch as well, and I don't think you would drink to excess if we just kept your mug topped up with your meals, would you? Just ask any day you'd like a bath, as well. So long as, well, so long as you can keep making clockwork of this quality for the inn. You can start tomorrow, on the heat engine. Would you like dinner now, or would you prefer a bath?” She must have taken pity on him, Zarib decided. His stomach grumbled, but he could see the grey dust on the green skin of his snout.

“A bath, first, if it please you.”

“It does.” She spared him a small smile from what must have been low stocks. “It will save me having to dust a chair later. Ala,” she called to her apprentice, “A bath, duman hot.”

“Yes, Mar,” Ala replied, bobbing quickly and passing her jug over the bar before bustling out a door in the corner to the left of the bar.

“If you’ll come this way, sah?” The Mar led him to the other side of the bar, a door leading to a stairway up and a corridor along. She took the corridor, then led him down another stairway, to the floor of the sede below the level of the common room. Zarib had a feeling the inside of a sede was like a longrat warren, all twisty tunnels that only a native could navigate. He guessed that the corridor the staircase led to was parallel with the edge of the sede, with the rooms on the right having windows out onto the ledge. The room Mar Rifiti guided him to was on the left, buried deeper inside the rock, but the air inside was fresher than he expected, and it had an excellent sunglow above the small desk and chair. “This is an apprentice’s room,” she explained, “but I’ve three of these and only Ala with me for now, so it’s likely it’ll be yours for as long as you want it. Just give me a couple of hours of your time every evening to keep everything running smooth, there’s always something in an inn this size.”

“Thank you, Mar. It will be quite sufficient.” He set his pack down at the foot of the bed and disengaged the lightness engine while she disappeared down the corridor. He had barely opened the top compartment and removed the two sacks holding clean and dirty clothing when she returned with a basket and a thick woollen robe.

“You may wear this robe to the bath, and put any clothes that require laundering in this basket.” She peered pointedly at his dusty tunic. “Please, I insist.” Zarib felt the edge of his nostrils flaring with the heat of his embarrassment, though dust was unavoidable on the road. She gave a slight, satisfied nod, and he wondered if she could see his blush; humans often seemed oblivious to duman facial expressions. “Your bath will be ready shortly. There’s a staircase at the other end of the corridor leading up to the baths. I must get back to the bar.”

Zarib unpacked the rest of his things, musing on his luck, and on the power of a clockmakers’ guild badge. City people were always untrusting, it seemed, but seeing the cog on his chest was all it took to win them over. Of course, anyone found wearing the badge fraudulently could expect a wide variety of exceedingly nasty things to be done to them, depending on the local customs for punishment, and it would be easy to detect any such attempts. It took years of training to be able to perform even basic maintenance on true clockwork.

The robe was warm and human-sized, draping all the way to the floor and overlapping across his entire chest, beige wool with trim in Innkeeper’s Guild colours. It swept the floor behind him as he walked up the corridor, and he had to kick it out of the way to climb the stairs. The tall human with the swellings was waiting on the landing, apparently for him.

“Hmm, I suppose we’ll have to hem that up for you, if you’re sticking around. I’m Ala, by the way, Ala Tolomeri.” She smiled down at him warmly and indicated a door. “This one’s yours, there’s soap in the dish and towels on the shelf, I’m sure you can figure it out.”

The water was hot, just the way he liked it. He’d heard humans liked their baths cooler than that, but the inn obviously had enough duman patrons to know which temperature to pour the bath at. Road dust sloughed off him as he scrubbed himself all over, twisting the brush to get the grit out from between his scales. He hadn’t had a decent bath for days, and though he was tempted just to soak, he took the chance to scrub himself thoroughly. The soap smelled of lavender, a common sight on the plains either side of the Galla river. He rose from the water feeling cleaner than he had in weeks, his scales gleaming green, and the water he left behind was tinged milky brown. He dried himself with one of the towels, and was looking at the dusty robe, wondering if he should put it on, when there was a knock at the door.

“Clockmaker sah? I’ve found a clean robe cut for a duman for you, if you’d like to put it on.”

He snatched up his towel, pulling it over and around his lower body to hide his groin, tail and lower arms, and opened the door for Ala. She held the robe out for him, the left upper armhole pointed directly at him, and he slipped into the robe.

“Thank you, Ala. I was just, er, just noticing how dusty the other robe was. I mean, how dusty I had made it. I shall be glad not to be on the road again for some time, I think.” He realised he was babbling, and shut his mouth.

“Well, you just go get some clean clothes on and I’ll clean up here and get some stew for you. Will you take it in the common room or your own?”

“I think my own room, tonight, thank you.” She smiled down at him over the hillside of her chest. Human faces were so oddly expressive, layered with muscle and fat.

“You do look like you’re about to fall asleep on your toes. Go on with you, I’ll be down soon enough.”

She brought him a mug of small beer and a bowl of stew, a human sized serving, but he was hungry enough to make the whole thing disappear as soon as it arrived. While he’d been bathing, a wash basin had been brought in and filled, and he scrubbed his teeth and tongue. The feeling of being clean, all over, was even more delicious than the stew had been. He burrowed under the blankets, curling up with the tip of his tail touching his snout, and almost immediately fell asleep.

“Good morning there, sah. Did you sleep well?”

“Passing well, dah. I fear my time on the road has caught up with me a little.” Zarib went through the motions of stretching, to demonstrate to Ala his stiffness without being so self-indulgent in public as to be impolite. “Have I risen too late to break my fast?”

“I think there’s still some porridge left in the pot, and I can brew you some coffee if you like.”

“Coffee is not something my people react well to, but porridge would be lovely.”

“Oh, you poor dear!” she exclaimed, clasping her upper hands - no, just her hands - to her swollen chest in mock horror. “No coffee? I’d entirely forgotten, I must have blocked the horror of the thought from my mind!” She pondered for a moment. “I believe we have the makings for some peppermint tea, would that suit you better?”

“That would be lovely, thank you.” He smiled at her as broadly as he could, to be sure she would see it. Ala seemed rather friendly and informal, a stark contrast to her Mar.

“So, what’s your plan for today, clockmaker sah?” she asked as she slid a bowl of porridge and a mug of steaming peppermint tea in front of him, the porridge doused with cream and both larded with honey.

“I was thinking of going down to the Guild Hall and announcing my arrival,” he told her as he scooped up his first spoonful of honey and cream, with perhaps some porridge at the bottom. “My purpose for coming to the city was to gain my mastery, and an examination will take some time to arrange, I’m sure. Best to get my request in early, I think.”
“Ah, but it’s Sezhaday, sah. Until the court opens for the season next week, the Guild Halls and such are all closed for the day.”

“Mmm. Mmm?” He swallowed his porridge. “Ah. Well, perhaps a day to recover from the journey will help. And I can take a look at your… heat engine, I think it was, that your Mar mentioned is causing trouble?”

The porridge was a solid weight in his stomach as he examined the case of the heat engine. It was a standard large-kitchen model, a reference number stencilled under the lip of the case detailing the model. He didn’t recognise the maker’s mark next to it, a smudged… owl? Perhaps a hawk. He knew a few marks for older, more renowned makers, but this was old, not an antique. He stepped back from the bulky box.

“This has been used this morning, hasn’t it?” he asked Ala, who was scrubbing dishes in a large basin, her sleeves rolled up revealing smooth brown arms.

“Oh yes, heating water for coffee and a bath or two, and cooking the porridge.”

Zarib nodded, stepping into the centre of the kitchen, where there was clear space all around him. He stuck his right foot out behind him, then swung it around in a half circle, lifting his knee sharply at the end of the arc. This was a spell he knew better than most, an old familiar friend from days working on the ore processors. His fingers flickered as he moved his arms, trying to introduce occasional small mistakes. He didn’t want this to be a powerful spell that would leave the whole room rimed with ice, just enough to cool the plate and the workings and let him open up the engine without burning his fingers. He’d done this hundreds of times, usually with his master watching, so the feel of Ala’s eyes on him as he finished wasn’t too uncomfortable. At least she knew not to speak until he finished, his movements ending with an outstretched finger touching the edge of the plate.

A cracking sound came from the tub as the temperature of the whole room immediately dropped below zero.

“Was that-t-t meant-t-t-to happen?” Zarib shook his head in reply as he rushed from the kitchen. Ala followed him, and they stood for a moment in the warmer common room, rubbing warmth into their arms.

“That, uh… well, you see, precision determines how powerful a spell will be, and I have always had a little trouble being sloppy, even intentionally.” He gave her an apologetic smile. “I’m really much more comfortable using magic through clockwork. It’s not really practical to carry a cooler just for situations like this, though.”

“Well, we’d best get the ice off the walls before Mar Rifiti gets done in the cellars. What do we do, scrape it off? Can’t turn the heat engine on, that’s put us back where we started.” Ala poked the ice that had formed in the wash basin. “Doesn’t look like it broke any dishes, at least.”

“Hmm… I may have something in my pack that would do the job. By your leave, dah?” She nodded at him irritably as she jabbed at the ice with a fork, irritation turning to amusement as she poked snap-frozen bubbles.

He dashed down the oddly-proportioned stairs and along the corridor to his room. The slim square box he was seeking sat on top of what remained in his pack, just under the sacks of clothes he’d removed the night before. He snatched it up and ran back, the stairs much easier to ascend than descend.

“What’s that?”
“This is a heat engine,” he replied, proudly displaying the little box. It wasn’t as well decorated as it could be, but it was as compact as he’d been able to get it while still providing the power he needed.

“No, that great lump over there is a heat engine. You can’t get them that small, can you?”

“It is possible, but only for a great price, unless one should happen to be able to construct one for oneself.” He allowed himself a small, proud smile as he set it on the floor. He hadn’t needed to use it the night before, so it should still have enough wind on the spring to do the job. As soon as he activated it, the plate on top began radiating heat.

“I’ve never seen one so small… every heat engine I ever encountered was the size of a brax.”

“These are mostly for nobles on campaign or out hunting. Sometimes a wealthy ship captain or wagon merchant will buy one, but the former usually just put the kitchen under their cabin, and the latter can always just light a fire. I am not much of an outdoorsman, however, so I built this on my journey, after a few cold nights out of doors.”

“I think it’s running hotter than the big one did. How long will it go for?”

“I last had the spring wound two days ago, but I didn’t use it last night. Perhaps two hours?” He unfastened the catches holding down the newly frost-swirled plate, lifting it to reveal the workings of the clockwork beneath. “Oh.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I have told your Mar that I will repair this engine, but… I fear that may be impossible.”

“What do you mean?” She walked over to stand beside him, peering into the complex workings. “It doesn’t look that bad to me.”

“Oh, the workings themselves are mostly in good order, though all the wheels are rather worn down. But the design… a heat engine should allow for expansion! How long has Mar Rifiti had this device?”

“Uhm… I think… two years? No, one and a half.”

“An inn kitchen heat engine should not be this worn after ten times that long! And the investment…” Zarib peered closer at the minute engravings on the cogs. “Is that a smiley face? That’s a smiley face! I would have been surprised that my little engine could turn out as much heat as this had I not seen this, but now… to be frank, dah, I am surprised it can produce heat at all, except by friction!” He reached in and tugged at one of the larger wheels. “This is a travesty. I would very much like to speak to the clockmaker who passed this off as worthy of his maker’s mark.”

“You’re genuinely angry about this, aren’t you?” Ala said, looking at him oddly.

“Well… yes! Yes, dah, I am! It is as if… as if someone had asked for a glass of mountain sweet from the best North Coast wineries, and the Mar had given him a wooden cup of vinegar! Except, of course,” he continued, restraining himself, “that there is no wine so expensive as an engine such as this ought to be. This is worth approximately as much as a cup of vinegar, however.”

“You’d be surprised, I think… and please, call me Ala. I insist.”

“I… very well, then. You may call me Zarib, if you insist that I call you Ala. It seems rather informal. We’ve not even known one another for a day, after all.”

“Anyone who can get that angry about shoddy workmanship is good enough for me. But what will you do, since it’s not worth repairing?”

Zarib pondered for a moment. The engine before him could generate enough heat to cook a meal and heat a bath for perhaps six months more, if he maintained it regularly. It was really not much better than scrap, though.

“It is ruggedly built, so I can likely make use of the parts, if I trim them down to remove the wear and this… excuse for investment. I think that I will have to replace the entire engine, but I have the parts for that, here and in my pack. I can sell the rest for scrap. I’ll put my heat engine in here in the meantime, it’ll be much more reliable and it can put out more heat with a mains driveshaft.”

“That can put out more heat than it is?”

“Yes, d-Ala. The spring is the weakness for most portable clockwork.”

“How much will it cost, to replace the whole engine?”

“I am paying for my room and board here with work on the inn’s clockwork, and I will honour that agreement.”

“This is a lot more than just repairs to what’s there, though…”

“I agreed with your Mar to fix what needed fixing. This is wrong, and requires fixing, and I will fix it.” Zarib’s voice came out harsher than he’d intended. Somewhere out there was a clockmaker who was ruining the reputation of his profession, building clockwork barely worthy of the name. Zarib loved clockwork, the delicate, complex order of its motions. What he saw below him felt like sacrilege. He’d have to mention it to the guild, as soon as he had been examined.
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