Jawril sighed and dropped his leather bag on the counter. The shop usually felt peaceful before opening, but the last few days that peace had felt more fragile. He looked around the scarred and cluttered workbenches strewn with tools and offcuts and pieces of unfinished jobs. One or two of the trinkets glowed amidst the dust with a pale milky light he knew most people would never see, and he wondered how many of the others were glowing in other reaches of the spectrum he hadn’t yet mastered.
He sighed again.
How long he could go on by himself, he wondered, before they’d be forced to close.
Outside, horse’s hooves clopped by as the morning silence slowly gave way to the influx of owners and workers streaming into the city’s commercial district. The air outside Wriven’s shop would soon be ringing with the clamour of merchants, blacksmiths and acrobats. The scent of fresh bread would waft through the air alongside that of burning metal. Beggars would be crying their monotonous wails, petitioning alms. Travellers would marvel and haggle in various accents and languages. Locals would complain to one another about the dust and the press and the noise.
This already raucous din had been joined by the shrill cries of the juvenile rhilvore. Their breeders made even more noise, hoping to shift their exotic clutches before they reached adolescence and had to be moved out of the city to the less accessible—and less profitable—desert pits.
The door opened without invitation, and the bright rectangle of sunlight was obscured by a hulking figure in ring-mail and thick furs who ducked through the entrance, catching the frame with the pitted blade of a nasty-looking axe. He gouged a splintery gash in the wood near several other similar scores.
Jawril bit back a frustrated curse.
“Dammit, Grood! How many times has Master Wriven told you to be more careful coming in—you’re destroying that frame!”
The hulking figure straightened up, all rumbling muscle and growling breath. His horns nearly grazed the ceiling, and Jawril felt a trickle of apprehension in the pit of his stomach.
Grood stared down at Jawril in silence.
“Watch yourself, apprentice,” he said in a voice like grating thighbones.
“Sorry,” Jawril said quickly. “I’m just…” He looked down, unwilling to meet the old Delwin’s coal-black eyes.
Grood rumbled a deep murmur of understanding.
“I know,” he said softly. Then he made a noise that could have passed for mild amusement.
“I absolve you from my honour-debt,” he said. “You may live.”
“I appreciate that,” he told the looming Delwin, and he meant it. The reprieve was a ritual, common as ‘please and thank you’ and tinged in populous cities with some measure of irony, but, to the Delween, still deadly serious. Often, to those unaccustomed to dealing with them, just deadly. Jawril felt himself relax now that the words had been spoken.
“You really are damaging that frame, though,” he added, turning back to the shop. “Master Wriven’s going to have to get it replaced soon at this rate.” Grood shrugged indifferently.
“Too small, anyway.” Jawril snorted.
The Delwin walked over to an oversized bench that had been carved from an oak trunk and dragged in by Grood himself when he’d been hired, and settled himself down with a creaking of leather and fibre.
“Did you manage the bracers?” he asked, adjusting his Waning axe.
“Oh, yes,” Jawril said, pulling an oilcloth bundle from his satchel. “Simple solder job,” he said, unwrapping the pair. “Somehow something managed to penetrate the field and damage the kirlian inlays and corrupt the alignment. Just needed a bridle-bridge and harmonic linking.” He held the two arm guards up in inspect them, their milky blue glow reflecting in his eyes. “Any first-year could’ve managed,” he added to himself.
“Doubt that,” he said. “What about the dagger?”
“Ah—ha!—no. No, I had a look at that last night and, that’s definitely going to have to wait for Master Wriven to…for when he comes…” He trailed off, and turned to place the bracers in the out-box, ready for collection. His eyes caught on the broken half of the medallion they’d found on the workshop floor two days ago. Its colemium lustre was singed, and the ragged edge where it had been torn in half was sharp enough to sink into stone under its own meagre weight if left lying pointed edge down. He’d almost lost a toe finding it, kicking it in the gloom of an early morning opening. The last time he’d seen that disk, it had been hanging around his master’s neck—as it had for years.
There’d been a scrap of parchment too, with miniscule fairy-script barely legible on its crumpled and re-crumpled surface, but they had no idea what it said, since neither Jawril nor Grood could read the Minveeri runes.
Both the scrap and the half medallion now waited behind the counter for Master Wriven; it had been two days since he’d failed to open the shop. Jawril and Grood kept up the pretence of continued service, taking on what jobs Jawril felt capable of managing unsupervised, turning away more difficult repairs. Wriven’s was well known, and this news had resulted in some belligerent disappointment. Thankfully, Grood’s presence had kept the majority of this disappointment civil, as it had always been intended to.
Jawril cleared his throat, dropped the bracers and looked over to the broken dagger that he’d laid out carefully on a velvet cloth on the workbench the day before. He’d accepted the job with the hope that it would be a simple repair, but closer inspection had revealed unperceived problems with this assumption: their number 3 Kirling stem had fizzled and melted in his hands when he’d tried to run the basic diagnostic reading, and he still had no idea why.
Before he could comment any further on the dagger, the shop door opened again; an old woman in a long, soft robe doddered in. Her grey hair hung flat around her wrinkled face, and her narrow feet scuffed on the ground with each small, shuffling step. Jawril turned to greet her and swallowed, noticing how thirsty he was.
“Good morning, madam,” he said politely. “How can Wriven’s be of service today?”
The old woman ignored him; she shuffled slowly towards the counter as she peered into the air around her as if looking for something. Her brow was drawn, as if she were trying to identify an unusual smell. Jawril waited politely, swallowing against the irritating dryness in his throat. Should have brewed the tea already, he thought.
The old woman reached the counter, and he greeted her again, in case she hadn’t heard him the first time.
The old woman ignored him again, and instead simply asked,
“Where is Wriven?” in a querulous tone that somehow managed to sound like a pre-emptive warning against any attempt at an unsatisfactory answer. Jawril blinked.
“I’m afraid Master Wriven is currently occupied with a very intricate concern,” he said, repeating the excuse that he and Grood had agreed upon.
“Interrupt him,” the old woman said, still ignoring Jawril’s presence and speaking casually as she frowned around as if searching for a noise on the edge of hearing.
Jawril glanced at Grood, and was disturbed to notice that the grizzled Delwin was looking inexplicably unsettled. He looked back at the old lady, and found himself struggling to swallow against the sticky dryness in his mouth.
Without meaning to, he suddenly decided to give up any further pretence.
“He…he isn’t here,” he stammered, his eyes twitching as if against a dry heat. “I’m sorry, he’s…he’s gone…”
The old woman finally lowered her eyes slowly to look at Jawril, and the apprentice clutched at the edge of the counter to keep from shivering from a sudden and inexplicable weakness. His eyes jumped to Grood, who seemed to be glued to the wall.
The old woman slowly placed her frail and bony hand on the counter. Where she touched it, the thick wood seemed to groan aghast; delicate cracks spread in the weathered wood as if from under a vast, invisible weight.
“He has something for me,” she said softly, and Jawril felt his face writhe. “A medallion,” she added, and the air seemed to creak and bulge. “He isn’t trying to keep it from me, is he?” Jawril felt his knees come close to buckling as if a great pressure was bearing down on him. His throat worked, and when he licked his lips to moisten them, he tasted blood.
“No, I…” His eyes darted to the half a medallion. Hope surged in his chest. “We…we found this…” he whispered, lifting the broken disk carefully onto the counter. Grood was still against the wall, making little snorting noises as if choking on his own spit.
The old woman wordlessly took the ruined medallion and inspected it.
“They’ve finally come then, have they?” she said to herself, looking thoughtful. With a weary sigh she slipped the ragged medallion into a pocket and turned for the doorway.
“Blessings be upon this place, then,” she intoned as she shuffled out, unhurried. Tears slid down Jawril’s face as she left. Grood gagged and coughed, staggering up to shut the door behind her.
The door bounced in its frame as the huge Delwin fumbled with the lock, still coughing. When he’d locked the door, he leaned his massive back against it and looked at Jawril, who was sagging into a chair, rubbing tears from his cheeks.
After a few moments, the hulking Delwin said,
“Today, we are closed.” Jawril nodded, weak with relief. He rubbed his lips and looked at the blood on his fingertips.
He wasn’t going to argue.