“I think we may have walked into another ambush.”
Iri felt like the whole room had paused in silence at Auri’s remark, and he had to take a moment to get his bearings. There was no such pause, of course, the hall still buzzed with the sounds of bustling business, of waiters waiting and busboys bussing. While the sun had almost finished setting outside, in here things were just beginning to get lively. Some tables over, travellers were singing songs in old Broshan which Iri thought it was unlikely they still remembered the meaning of. Over the last sixty years, the languages in the kingdom’s three duchies had become mingled with the various tongues spoken by the horde of refugees from the west.
The result was that while most of the noble families and some of the sufficiently rich merchants still spoke in the pure tongues of the old kingdoms, everyone else spoke some dialect of a pidgin that had no official designation. In a decade or two, at least that was the idea, it would become the new official language of the kingdom, and then even the nobles and merchants in their walled gardens would have to adopt it when conducting official business. By then it might be given a better name than ‘common,’ or any of the other monikers that people used for it.
It wasn’t really common anyway, at least not for the most part. While some terms certainly migrated between duchies, especially near their borders, someone from Broce would have a hard time communicating anything but the most basic of concepts with someone from Artan or Dema. That was why the king wanted to control it, to use it to bring people together across the entire kingdom. The idea was laughable, however noble the sentiment behind it might be. Speech was not a science, not like alchemy or artifice or even commerce. By the time academics managed to pin down enough of it in their books and scrolls to submit to the king’s council, what the people spoke outside the walls of the academy would be unrecognizable. Too many people and too little space, too many cultures mingled in one place to control something so fundamentally mutable as language.
“Iri for fuck’s sake, pay attention!” The sharp whisper tore Iri from his reverie. While Auri was still speaking in hushed tones, he could tell there was a strain in her voice that implied she wanted to be much louder.
“Focus! Do you think you can do it?” He was almost certain that he could, even if he did not know exactly what it was that she was asking him to do. She looked so angry, however, that he decided it was best to play along for now rather than tell her that he hadn’t been listening.
“Yep.” Since Auri did not look immediately mollified, Iri had to focus on keeping a straight face and maintaining eye contact. His aloofness embarrassed him, and annoyed her to no end.
“‘Yep’?” She asked skeptically, raising an eyebrow at him.
“Yep. Absolutely.” He repeated himself, although he was starting to question whether perhaps he should come clean and ask her to repeat herself. It would only worry her, he decided, and she had enough on her plate as it was. There was no need for her to fret over him, too.
She held on to her dubious look, and let it linger on him while she got up from her seat. Then she turned around and walked away. A few moments later she was out the front door, and he was left to try to figure out what it was she was so uncertain he was capable of accomplishing.
The room felt different without her. Much heavier and tighter than before, as if it was suddenly occupying less space. He could feel his heart pick up its pace as he looked around. There were perhaps 30 people all together in the large main hall, about half of which were staff. The tables were set openly on the wooden flooring, and the sand that peaked through its cracks implied there was no cellar to speak of. That wasn’t so strange in this part of the coast, where any attempt at a cellar meant opening a way into the network of tunnels below.
At least ten people also scurried along the wooden staircases and platforms that connected the rooms in the floors above, although the rooms themselves were built into the stone construction. Light radiated outward from five huge, cast iron chandeliers suspended from the stone ceiling, as well as alcoved lanterns at regular intervals along the wall. All in all, the place was well lit and the open architecture gave an uninterrupted view of all the rooms from anywhere on the ground floor, and vice versa. The familiar faces interspersed among the servers a moment before had disappeared, and he had no doubt they were going toward back entrances to circle around for Auri. She was the dangerous one, after all. The one they’d have to take out before they could lay their hands on him and his invention, assuming that was what they were after.
They could, he supposed, just as easily do that before they took her out, since she had gone outside and left him alone. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more certain he became that it would be a good idea for him to be in his room with the door locked as soon as possible. Now that he was really considering things, that seemed like just the sort of thing she might have asked him to do in the first place. He rushed to his feet before it occurred to him that he should try to remain inconspicuous. In the shuffle of arms and legs that followed as he tried to disentangle himself from his seat, he promptly knocked over most of the things standing on the table, and spent some time trying to stand them back up with shaking hands. Almost immediately abandoning the attempt to tidy up after himself, he gave a loud huff and then turned and hurried toward the stairs.
The need to be surreptitious about retiring to his chambers made all his attempts at covertness feel forced and obvious. By the time he was at the stairs he realized that he had not paid for their drinks, and turned around to go back to the bar. Then he spun back around before he could start walking again, reconsidering and deciding it would look suspicious. Stress was getting to him, and as his pace stiffened on his way up through the four floors to his room, he studied every passing face to see if it might be one of their hidden attackers.
None of them were, and when he finally got into his room after fiddling with the key for several minutes, he slammed it shut behind him and slapped the latch into place, then sank down against the wall with his head in his hands. What was he doing here? He had no combat training, no experience with violence beyond distant memories of his father. The whole concept stressed him deeply, and he felt a swell of guilt in his chest at his reaction of hiding up here and leaving his little sister to deal with the situation. That was silly, of course. Auri was a honed weapon, an arms master and ranking officer in the king’s guard, an elite soldier that had seen combat at the Front itself. There would be nothing any common bandits in this part of the world could do to stop such an elemental force. He was the weak point here, not her. All he could do to help her was to stay out of harm’s way, and not make himself a weakness that their enemies could exploit.
His life in the academy had taught him to study the world using his mind, rather than relying solely on his five senses. The new methodology that the academy represented eschewed the old understanding of the world through magical means that had dominated academic research in the past. Philosophers had come up with what they called the Grand Question, and he had trained his entire life to answer it. Is this the world as it seems, or the world as it is? Over reality was drawn a mirage, an image that correlated with the true nature of the world but also served to conceal it. Reality consisted of patterns, of rules and mechanics that determined how it should behave, and it was those rules and mechanics that created the image of the world as it seemed. The illusion was almost perfect, a part of the world as surely as the systems that determined its behavior, and it covered all the senses because it was them. Except for the mind. That was the tool that had to be honed to a fine edge in order to pierce the veil. Not that it would do him much good now. He wondered what use a sharp mind was against a strong sword? Steel could not be parried with logic alone.
The grand question was so abstract now that he was in danger. How naive he had been, thinking his pioneering research had equipped him with the means to determine the course of the world. To change the balance of the war of reclamation. He had found a way to summon fire and force from base minerals, and even more than that, a way for anyone to do it. With the cannon, the force could be directed into an iron ball, made into a hammer that could smash through any shield no matter how strong. How confident he had been setting out into the world armed with his invention, believing that he was the one bringing the fight to the Adversary. He had never even considered the possibility that they wouldn’t even make it down to the front to test the thing. That they would be intercepted by people who wanted to use it for their own ends. The fight had been brought to them, instead, and by an enemy he had not even considered. It was actually quite ironic, all things considered, that his quest to come closer to the true nature of reality had brought him so out of touch with the world outside his academy’s walls. What an absurd turn of events, that his focus on seeing the world as it was had been what distracted him from acknowledging the reality he now found himself in.
As a matter of fact, if he really thought about it, this whole situation was absurd. If these were the same people who had ambushed him and Auri on the highway, they knew she was kozan. He had told them as much. They had to know that there was no way that they could possibly win against her. Even if they managed to somehow evade her and take only him, the king could call on wizards from Dordoron to track him. When it came to kozan business the king’s justice was swift and ruthless. It wouldn’t even be a matter of days before the hammer came down. He had some black powder with him, certainly, but its creation could not be gleaned just from possessing the substance. Without disabling Auri, there was no way they would have the time needed to break him and then use him to make any useful amount of it, much less the specifications needed to turn it into any sort of real weapon. Either they were just that stupid and desperate, or they had an ace up their sleeve. Someone gifted, born in the tunnels? He scarcely believed anything they could come up with could rival the training of the kozan. Several, then, or something worse.
Iri ran his hands through his hair, pushing it out of his face, and rose to his feet. Auri was going to be in trouble if she wasn’t already, and he needed to figure out some way to help her get out of it. He would not hide away here in safety while she was murdered in some plot cooked up in the bowels of the rag road.
Turning around the room and studying it properly for the first time, he took inventory of the things in here that might be used to fight. No weapons or anything even remotely resembling a weapon, and the furniture was all too sturdy and decorated to be dismantled for use as a makeshift club. He did not really have the skills needed to wield a weapon like that usefully, anyway. At least not against anyone with any sort of fighting experience. It was a nice room, with heavy drapes in front of the window, engraved stands and cabinets, even a canopied bed. The rooms up here at the top really were very expensive. It even came with a stand of drinks, bottles of wine and fine spirits and even glasses to drink from. Perhaps he could break the bottles and use that. While he may not be a serious threat to anyone even while armed, maybe the bandits wouldn’t know that. He would remedy this predicament if he survived, ask Auri to teach him how to fight. Now that his eyes had been opened, he would make this a part of his reality. That was, after all, what he was trained to do. To never look away when the veil was lifted. Until then, he would have to find some way to fake it.
Who was he kidding? He could never look like a warrior. Auri was the soldier, not him. She moved with the grace and determination of a predator, and her stocky and athletic build only hinted at how strong she really was. Always maintaining a perfect posture, as if she were a dancer, she had no sword at her side but somehow that implied only that she did not need one. Iri on the other hand, with his wiry limbs and slight paunch, communicated no such air of danger. He did not even compare to the kind of pedestrian thug that had tried to waylay them on the road. Their bodies spoke of difficult lives, muscles that had turned into tough chords by a combination of hard work and scarce food. Iri had a scholar’s neck, a slouch that spoke of countless hours spent hunched over books and tomes. Even his skin had a pallor of a lifetime under the soft glow of candles and oil lanterns. It had grown better over his week on the road, but even here he spent most of his time in the carriage or under the roof of inns. His sister’s warm olive skin was significantly lighter than the people of the kingdom, and he looked sickly in comparison. He did not even carry a weapon. Where their attackers would have clubs and knives, maybe even swords, the only things he had brought with him were a keg of gunpowder that needed a cannon or container to be much use, and a satchel strapped across each shoulder. He rolled his eyes and groaned in reproach.
“I’m a fucking idiot,” he said after a short pause. How could he forget that he had brought his bags. That meant chemicals, even his case of vials. So caught up in how different the outside world was, he had forgotten how much it was the same. He did have a weapon after all, he just needed to work quickly.
Looking around for some water, he found a ceramic pitcher near the wash basin in the room, and brought it over to the drinks table. Then he pulled out a small, rectangular wooden box from one of his satchels and opened it. Inside was an array of half a dozen tiny vials no bigger than a shot glass with liquids with varying colour and opacity. He picked out one of the clearer ones, and carefully sealed the container back up and replaced it in his bag, then held it up to the light. It might have had a faint yellow hue, but it was hard to tell whether it was just the candlelight. Aqua Fortis, he thought, the king’s water. Maybe reason couldn’t parry swords, but he would like to see someone try to block a splash of acid.
Unsealing the vial, he carefully dripped a minute amount of the contents into two glasses, then waited for a couple of minutes. When there was no immediate reaction beyond the fumes caused by the chemical’s exposure to air, he sighed in relief, and portioned out the rest of the acid equally into each glass. Finally, he diluted it with water in order to make the acid more volatile. While he was certain that he could distil more of the stuff with the saltpetre in his satchel and things he found around the room, that would take hours. Two glasses would have to do, and he would have to be exceedingly careful not to splash himself if he had to use them. Still, it felt good to be ready. To see the world as it was once more.
Not a moment too soon, as it turned out. Iri was just trying to figure out how long Auri had been gone, and whether she would think to look for him in his room, when the door handle began to rattle violently. The shaking handle quickly turned into banging on the door, as an angry voice outside shouted in the very pidgin Iri had been musing about earlier. It wasn’t difficult to understand for someone who spoke multiple languages, as the words were all borrowed from somewhere.
“Open up wazee, there is no escaping!” Well, perhaps not all the words then. It was probably something they were calling him. Random unintelligible words in otherwise understandable sentences had a way of being nouns. Where was that from, some island in the Muriad? The man had the gruff voice of someone who was used to shouting, so Iri hoped maybe it was someone who was in some semblance of command. Other sounds accompanied him, chatter and footsteps, enough to tell him there were at least three people out there.
“You better not step one fucking foot in this room! I’m an alchemist!” Iri tried to sound confident as he shouted back, and hoped they understood what he was saying. Not really common, indeed. These people didn’t know what acid was, but maybe they had heard about the art itself. The banging on the door started coming in powerful, rhythmic blows. Clearly these were not educated men.
He scurried over to get the gunpowder keg. It was a fairly small black cask, fitted with a board and straps on one side so it could be worn on the back. However, at 25 pounds of weight he was not sure just how long he would be able to carry it. As long as it took, he supposed, but if it came down to it the keg could be easily discarded. Then he picked up a glass of acid in each hand, and switched positions in front of the door a few times while he considered what would be the best angle to intercept the people coming through the doorway. His heart was trying to beat its way up through his throat, and it took all his nerve to keep his hands from shaking. No good having unsteady hands when you were dealing with dangerous chemicals, and he did not want to risk having to drop one. He only had two glasses after all, so he would have to make them count.
Rocking so hard it bent around the hinges and lock, the door was quickly losing the fight against the people on the other side. Finally there was a short pause, and then a solid boom went through the whole room as the door splintered off its hinges. If he hadn’t been so strung out on adrenaline, he might have taken a moment to consider the quality of the craftsmanship in a lock that held out longer than the hinges. Instead, as a dark-skinned man in piecemeal leather armor and wielding a wooden club came barging through, he splashed the acid directly into his face and chest and then threw the glass at him for good measure. It clunked off the intruder’s forehead, and the shock stopped him mid-charge as he gave Iri a look of puzzled surprise at being suddenly drenched. Iri thought he looked as if he was about to start laughing, but then the first wisps of tawny smoke oozed out of his ebony skin, and the screaming began.