Rune Breaker: Chapter 46 – The One Who Was Lost

This entry is part 4 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)
Raiteria eyed the water around her with profound distrust. Brin told her that the small boats tied up at nearly every dock in Rivenport were public vessels owned by the Historical Society, but Rai was starting to think they should have either spent the coin for a nicer one or just walked around to the bridge. The side of the little boat were, in her opinion, entirely too low and gave her a far too close view of the Emaru River around them.
 
The Emaru was slowed significantly by the falls and the various artificial islands constructed in its delta, but being swept away was the least of her concerns. More important to her was the fact that inevitably, as in any city on a large river, the waste ended up in said body of water with the hopes that time and tide would carry it out to sea. The river being slow probably only made matters worse.
 
“Why are we even going back to Market Town anyway?” She complained, never looking away from the water. If she did, she was sure a wave would wash up and splash her with the gods knew what. “There looked to be a lot better places to get supplies on the other islands.”
 
Brin was pulling on the oars with a practiced ease that might have identified to other long time residents of the city as one of their own. Her eyes drifted off to the left, idly surveying the other water traffic. Amid all the smaller boats, a barge laden with cut logs was making its way from the east to the western shore. It had a system of traces not unlike a carriage leading down from it into the water where it hitched to an aquatic reptile called a mosa, which was nearly as long was the barge itself and could be seen now only as a murky form beneath the waves.
 
“I… might have had a second agenda for volunteering to gather supplies.” she admitted in a quiet, almost shy voice.
 
Rai’s hand closed over the hilt of her kukri, which was thrust through her waistband. While she liked Brin after a fashion, she still wasn’t about to rule out another betrayal. “What.” She said through her teeth.
 
The tone and the action weren’t lost on Brin. “Nothing like that, I promise. It’s just… when I went to the homestead, I found that Layaka was a real person.”
 
Mention of Layaka kept Rai’s grip steady on the kukri, but a trickle of sympathy entered her expression when she remembered the fate of Idarian Homestead. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear…”
 
“No, actually it was good news.” said Brin, “Layaka escaped the homestead—might have survived…” She licked her lips and looked back at the approaching docks connecting to Market Town. In doing so, she made a point of showing her bare neck to the nir-lumos woman. It was a gesture she’d picked up from her mother, one of those things that showed up under stress. Among miare it was a mark of trust, though she imagined it meant nothing to Raiteria.
 
“In fact, Kaiel said that she might have ended up here in Rivenport if she kept to the southern roads instead of stopping at one of the coastal cities.”
 
Rai relinquished her hold on her weapon and relaxed, if only a bit. One hand swept her hair from her eyes as the other continued to grip the side of the boat. “Why would she press on here instead of stopping on the coast?” Even though she heard hope in Brin’s voice, she didn’t want to encourage a fool’s hope.
 
A small sigh escaped Brin. With a full more pulls of the oars, they glided into dock and bumped against the pier. “It’s thin, but I thought… well that she might be like I was when I was her age. Nir-lumos are free all your lives, traveling the world. But if you’re born in a homestead, there’s a good chance you’ll die there or in one just like it.”
 
She shipped the oars and threw a line over the nearest bollard, using it to pull them in closer to the dock. “My father, he founded the Rolling Meadows Enclave after the ashing and took up carpentry there. He honestly thought I would want to learn his trade and stay there all my life.”
 
Raiteria let the other woman keep talking, but jumped nimbly to the pier at the moment of first opportunity. She watched with no small amount of relief at no longer floating on the Emaru as Brin tied the ship up and retrieved her pack and the Barratta from the boat.
 
“Being a blacksmith’s daughter and having no family left now, I thought she might take her chance coming to a city like Rivenport rather than try and find a place in the coastal cities. Besides, the younger children she was charged with will find folks to take them in, or an orphanage, but if the real Layaka is the same age as the fake, she’d be hard pressed finding a roof over her head there.”
 
They walked along the pier to the stone stairs leading up from the docks to the street level. Along the way, they saw a variety of trader ships loading and unloading goods while local fishermen were returning to their boats following their afternoon meals for another shift out on the lake.
 
“So… you think you’ll just find her on the docks?” asked Rai.
 
Brin gave a light laugh. “Not on the Market Town docks. The locals won’t let anyone from elsewhere work here because the pay is so good. No, I doubt she’d be In Market Town at all. When I first came here, though, one of the gate guards looked out for me and got me a decent courier job on University Island. If we’re lucky and Layaka made it here, one of Tarn’s officers might have done the same for her.”
 
***
The Chill Stones was one of those taverns where the clientele came for the inebriation and didn’t give an orm’s snotty nostril about the décor (which could also be compared to an orm’s snotty nostril). It was clean though, in more ways than one, thanks to being the nearest tavern to the Market Town guard barracks and thus being the place where the local authority figures gathered when they went off shift.
 
The hour was between shifts at the moment, so the only actual guards there were officers and investigators who preferred to mull over reports and unsolved crime somewhere with a tap and complementary crisps on hand.
 
Brin and Raiteria entered to no fanfare at all and barely any glances in their direction. Anyone worth looking at coming into the Stones immediately went over to the person who should be looking at them or burst in shouting things. Only the man at the bar kept his eyes on them and that was only because he was hoping they’d order something.
 
Raising two fingers to the barman, Brin gave a friendly nod. “Nice to see you’ve moved up in life. Two pints of the house and a bowl of crisps, Chayli.”
 
Her use of his name seemed to convince him to see more than just two customers and his demeanor became guarded. He knew Brin, but more importantly, he knew she was a contractor with the Society. Contractor bars were neither as quiet, as clean, nor as free of brawls as the Stones normally was.
 
Sensing his apprehension, Brin smiled sweetly at him and repositioned the Barratta so that it was fully across both shoulders with her wrists resting across it. Swinging it from there would be a difficult proposition. Chayli nodded and muttered something like ‘right away’ before turning to yell back to the kitchen.
 
Rai smirked and followed Brin down the single step from the door to the barroom floor. “Don’t they usually ask if you want vinegar with your crisps? I can see that you’re much beloved in your home town.”
 
“That’s just Chayli.” said Brin, scanning the room. “He used to be barman at Wicked Blades. Nasty contractor bar. There were fights there nightly. I might have been occasionally involved.” Her eyes lit upon the person she was looking for. “Ah, there he is.”
 
At a table at the rear of the tavern, sitting on the bench that spanned the length of the wall, was the object of Brin’s search. He didn’t look like the typical watch officer Rai knew from her many travels. Instead, he was clean shaven with his gray-tinged brown hair neatly combed. Instead of overly muscled or portly, he was of average build except for beefy forearms revealed by his rolled up sleeves.
 
Unlike in cooler climes, the officer’s uniform for Rivenport’s guard was all about maximizing both comfort and protection. In place of the usual heavy breast plate, he wore a chain vest over a light, homespun shirt and a pectoral on top of that bearing the white-outlined gold star worn by those of Captain’s rank. There was a long, blue cloak too, and a helm, but both were sitting on the bench beside him as he hunched over a map of Market Town that had been unrolled on the table before him and weighed in the corners with tankards.
 
There was a sly smile on Brin’s face as she led Raiteria across the room and slid into the seat opposite the guard captain. Not giving him a chance to look up and see who had the audacity to just seat themselves with him, Brin leaned forward, chin resting in her hands. “Pardon me, Captain Tarn, but I would like to buy you a drink.”
 
Recognition dawned on his features as he finally caught sight of Brin. He straightened himself up a bit and gestured to the map in front of him. There were marks in charcoal; names and numbers in a shorthand Brin couldn’t begin to decipher. “They don’t have anything strong enough for me right now.”
 
Tilting her head, Brin read some of the annotations on the map. “New recruits coming into the guard?”
 
“And all the organizational headaches that come with it.” He said with a nod. Then his expression turned from frustrated to wry, “Not that I expect a vagabond contractor to understand anything about organization. How’s the whole disreputable business been treating you, Brin?”
 
“No new scars to tell you about, is the best I can say.” Brin indicated the seat to her right to Rai. “Elmont Tarn, I’d like you to meet Raiteria, a friend of mine from the Clan of the Winter Willow.”
 
Tarn’s eyebrows rose. “Winter Willow? One of the caravans?” A scowl caused the lines on his face to deepen. “No one told me that a halfling caravan had arrived.”
 
Perched on the seat, Rai put her palms on the table and leaned heavily on them. “They haven’t. I’m here with Brin on personal business.” She looked to Brin and schooled her face, “But that’s not why we came to see you.”
 
Rivenport was a cosmopolitan city, and as one of its lawmen, Tarn knew full well what it took to convince a nir-lumos to willingly leave their clan in most circumstances. He was curious, but had no intention of prying, so he shifted his attention to Brin. “Then why are you here then, Brin? You know I don’t do special favors.”
 
“I would never expect you to.” said Brin.
 
At that moment, Chayli arrived with a wooden bowl of crisps and a smaller one of vinegar. The crisps were thinly sliced potatoes fried in oil until worthy of the name. Until recent years, they had been an exclusively Calleni dish, but contractors, adventurers and other travelers had spread the food far and wide following the signing of the Accords and the opening of borders.
 
After setting them down in front of Brin, he reached into the front of his apron and placed a small tin of salt down on the table next to them a bit harder than he would for most customers.
 
Brin ignored the rudeness and briefly told Tarn about the destruction of Idarian homestead and how the ghosts told her of the children escaping with Layaka. She left out all mention of Partha or Kaydan demons because if Tarn had related such to her, she would have been hard pressed to believe it.
 
The Market Town guard captain listened intently, occasionally scratching his bare chin or asking for clarifications. When the tale ended, he reached out and took one of the crisps, eating it without salt or vinegar. “We’ve been getting steady refugees from the coast in the last month; Sayda Convay blockaded Marche over Marchen piracy and damn near starved them out. Not many orphans among them though: whole families mostly.”
 
“She wouldn’t have been in the city long,” said Brin. “Maybe just a few weeks at most. And she would have been looking for work.”
 
While she was saying this, Chayli had returned with their drinks. Brin missed the little start he gave, but Rai didn’t. The halfling woman caught his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip as he was setting her pint before her. She looked up into surprised blue eyes and gave him a glare that promised that the grip she had on him could tighten further if he didn’t cooperate. “Hey now.” She said, “You wouldn’t happen to have something to add, would you?”
 
The barman tugged at his arm, but found that the small hand was indeed locked onto his own. He threw a dark look at Brin and said with all the spite he could muster. “I’ve got a bar to run.”
 
It wasn’t hard for Brin to catch on to why Raiteria was detaining Chayli and she glared up at him. For a former barman at a contractor bar, he was handsome in a cold way; dark hair that was just a bit shaggy, a narrow face and nose that suggested something more exotic than just ‘human’ in his ancestry. She’d never had any kind words for him though, because even back at Wicked Blades, he barely bothered to conceal his hatred for the Society’s contractors.
 
“I’m not going to bother trying to appeal to your sense of decency, Chayli. Yes, you got your share of knocks and cuts at the Blades, but none of them came from me, so I’ve got nothing to be sorry for. If you want to spite me, though, it’s all well and good; go ahead. But we’re not playing any games over Layaka. The girl deserves better.”
 
From one of her many concealed pockets, Brin pulled three gold coins, Novromi full-marks, and slammed them down on the table so hard that the tankards jumped. It wasn’t precisely a fortune, but it was a lot of money just to throw around, about two nights of work for Chayli. “Tell me.” She said, keeping a finger pressed on top of each coin.
 
Chayli sneered and turned up his nose. “You think you can just throw the money you make playing fetch for the Society at me to make me do what you say?”
 
“Boy,” Tarn said with a hearty chuckle at the young man’s expense. “That’s free money on the table. More than you’ll make in here the rest of the day. You ought to think long and hard before you decide if it’s worth it or not to pick this fight.”
 
The friendly bit of advice might have reached Chayli if the barman hadn’t noticed that several of the other guards in the place were now surreptitiously watching the proceedings. He couldn’t back down even if he’d wanted to. “All due respect, Captain.” He said with a sour look on his face, “I’m not so hard up that I need to take a contractor’s money any longer.”
 
With a deft move, he flicked his wrist out of Rai’s grasp and started to turn away.
 
Undeterred, Rai caught his bicep instead, almost getting herself pulled out of her chair for her trouble. She managed to look unfazed by the precarious movement as she said, “Then you’ll take mine, barman. Or do you have a problem with the nir-lumos caravans too?”
 
Chayli looked back at her, then turned a burning glare to Brin.
 
“You’re not talking to her anymore.” Rai snapped. “You’re making a deal with me.” Her free hand came up from digging in a pocket to hold out a handful of silver Calleni swords. Altogether, it was less money than three full-marks, but still a handsome payday for the barman.
 
If someone asked him, Chayli would have said he wanted nothing more to knock those coins out of her hand, spilling them dramatically across the floor to make a statement. In truth, he had food to buy, a landlord to pay, and a fisherwoman he was trying to woo. That didn’t mean he couldn’t be spiteful about it.
 
“Both.” He said, flicking his eyes between the swords and the full-marks.
 
“Say what now?” asked Raiteria.
 
Chayli straightened his back and thrust out his chin imperiously. “I said I want both: the marks and the silvers. This girl is worth that much you, yeah?”
 
“Fine.” Brin’s hand went to her pocket again, but Chayli interrupted her.
 
“No. I want you to owe your friend.”
 
“You’re a complete back-birth, Chayli Temores.” spat Brin, Sliding the coins along the table top where Rai dumped her handful of coins atop them.
 
The barman wasted no time scooping up the coins. “And I’m still head and shoulders above the likes of you.”
 
“The girl, Chayli.” Tarn said, his voice a threatening rumble.
 
Knowing he’d pushed his luck far enough, Chayli dropped his ill-gotten gains into his apron pocket. “Yeah, her. There was a girl that came in… five, six days ago? She wanted to talk to the owner about a job serving in the evenings. Eastern kid, lot of Foreman in her—you could tell ’cause she was tall for her age. Your girl have this…” He gestured to his own head, “Scrubby blonde hair, like a push-broom someone ought to throw out?”
 
Brin and Rai looked at one another. The former spoke. “We… actually have no idea what she looks like.”
 
The barman sneered again at this. “Good job looking for her then. Only other thing I remember about her is that she had this iron chain around her neck, thin like I never seen iron worked. Had a Denaiian eye on an anvil for the pendant.”
 
“Great,” Raiteria muttered, “She’s a Denaiian.”
 
“No, it makes sense!” said Brin, excited, “Denaii isn’t just the Lawgiver, he’s also the patron of craftsmen—like blacksmiths!” Her animosity with Chayli forgotten, she looked back at him, eyes dancing. “Do you know where she went?”
 
This sudden shift in attitude put him off his stride and Chayli replied automatically “We don’t need any more servers, so I sent her over to my uncle’s stables down Riversight Road. The old man’s always looking for a hard worker and she looked desperate enough that she’d be happy busting her back mucking stalls.”
 
The glimmer in Brin’s eye grew and she leapt up from her seat. “She is here, Rai! Let’s go—I know exactly where that stable is!” She almost bounded right out the door, but then stopped, tossing a mixture of silver, copper and bronze coins from at least three different nations on the table. “For our drinks and for Captain Tarn’s drinks for the rest of the night.” She winked at her old friend.
 
“And to think,” Tarn laughed again, “I hardly did anything. Good luck, finding your girl, Brin. And nice to meet you, Raiteria. Good luck with your business as well.”
 
“My thanks.” Rai said, hopping down from her seat. She had to jog to keep up with Brin as the other woman moved briskly back out into the humid Rivenport evening.
 
Brin waved to a passing hansom cab driver, who reined in his horses and tipped his hat to them. “The Temores Stables on Riversight Road.” she instructed, letting Rai climb into the cab ahead of her.
 
Inside the cab, Rai took the time to look around. She’d never been in a hansom before and found it novel at the very least. The twin bench seats, one facing the other, had once boasted red plush cushions, which had faded with time and use; now sporting visible patches that were probably the same color they started out as. There were little chemical lamps mounted to the walls on either side of the seat, their bronze sconces polished with care, as was all of the woodwork.
 
Rai couldn’t help herself and turned the brass handle underneath one while Brin was climbing in. There was a low hiss as the handle pushed a thin rod made of some alchemical alloy up onto the strange, clear liquid that filled the bulk of the lamp. With a small pop, the rod began to blaze with a bright, steady light. Far more expensive than a regular lantern and less long-lived than a spellcrafted one, the chemical lamps weren’t widespread, but already Rai was pondering buying one to bring back to the caravan once everything was said and done.
 
Thankfully, Brin spoke before Rai could dwell too much on the reason she was even in Rivenport to start with. “I’ll pay you back once I break a few of my full-marks.” she said sheepishly. “I got a bit carried away back there and threw all my smaller coin on the table.”
 
It took an effort for Rai not to roll her eyes. Tall folk simply did not understand. “No need.” She said at length.
 
“Of course there is. I owe you.”
 
“We’ll talk about debt once we’re back from Nhan Raduul.” said Raiteria, waving off the idea. She made herself comfortable, swinging her feet up onto her seat with her back against the side of the carriage. “What are you going to do when you find Layaka anyhow?”
 
Brin slumped forward, palms on her knees. “Offer to help. However I can. You know, before I ended up here, I tried to find work in three other cities upriver. The one thing I wanted more than anything was for someone who had some kind of power to make thing better to just… ask me what I needed.”
 
Her eyes studied the worn-thin carpet at her feet. “I wouldn’t have been greedy. I’d ask for a job or a cot in their barn or some shoes—anything to make life just a little bit easier. That’s… that’s why I took in the… Partha.” She spat the name out like a bite of unexpectedly rancid meat. “Here was this girl that lost everything; who was worse off than I had ever been. I was just trying to get out of the enclave, but she never had a choice. I wanted to be there for her.”
 
They both watched Market Town pass by for a while. The hansom wound north through the streets where the view started to degrade. The wind blew off the sea most of the time, so the northern part of the town was given over to all the things people refused to live downwind of; tanneries, slaughterhouses, middens and garbage dumps. A buffer of slums grew up at the edge of that, as did a tight cluster of stables and bestiaries along the road running above the river.
 
As they drew nearer their destination, Rai saw the latticed dome of a spider cage drift by. There were only three riding spiders visible and no inner cage where fear bred horses might be raised. One of the spiders hung from the side of the metal cage, a silk-wrapped bundle that was probably a pig hanging from its two front legs.
 
“We might leave for Nhan Raduul as early as tomorrow. Do you plan to take her with you?”
 
Brin shook her head. “Bring a girl who doesn’t know me to Mon Sulus Kime to confront two Kaydan Demons? I’m not that irresponsible. Maybe it would make more sense to wait until we return but…” She pulled a honey colored lock away from her eyes, “…I have to be realistic about the chance that I might not come back.”
 
This drew a grin from Raiteria that earned her a confused look from Brin. The halfling shook her head, “Sometimes one of you tall folk gets it after all. You want to make sure she’s cared for regardless.”
 
Brin nodded. “I have some friends and favors to call on. I can make sure she’s got work, a roof over her head and hot food in her belly for a good while at least.”
 
The hansom slowed to a stop outside of Temores Stables. It was a modest, dusty place with a low, squat front office built into a fence of tall planks. Over the top of the fence, the larger structures of several barns could be seen. The office itself had a porch built onto the front, not unlike a general store in a smaller town. A placard depicting a fine horse in full canter was done up in maroon and gold leaf, and hung on the railing around said porch.
 
Brin chewed her lip when she saw that there was also a young woman sitting on the rail, taking her ease with her back against one of the upright supports and her legs stretched out across the length of the wood. She bore only a passing resemblance to the woman Brin had known, but enough to know that the demon had at least used her as a reference.
 
“What?” asked Rai, who had been looking out the opposite window.
 
Only one word found its way out of Brin’s mouth. “Layaka…”
 
***
Gaiven Mis’rha somehow knew that the man stalking through his workshop was not going to buy anything. It was a sense he’d honed over years of being a spellcrafter for hire and one that saved him much time. Some people came in to see if they could buy commissions that fell through or the efforts of his apprentices on the cheap. Some, from cities with less healthy spellcrafting markets, came just to peruse the items for something unusual to tell their friends and family back at home about. Others just wanted to size him up because they heard a social or professional rival had contracted with him.
 
The latter seemed to be the case for the thin man with a short beard and raven hair tied back in a scholar’s tail. Gaiven just wished the man would stop floating everywhere instead of walking. He gauged where customers were by the sounds of their footsteps and thus didn’t have to look up all that much. This man, however, silently ghosted from shelf to shelf, squinting at everything as if he could divine the function of everything by sight alone.
 
Both things unnerved Gaiven and somehow made him flash back to his own time as an apprentice when his master appraised his work. It was the kind of subtle humiliating feeling that made one want to become a master simply so one never got that feeling again.
 
He tried to force the man out of his mind and resumed his work laying in a permanent flaer zome array inside a specially prepared energist. Once done, the ten pound chunk of quartz would continually store ambient flaer, and when placed into a matrix that directed ambient flaer into it, would become the heart of a mystic steam engine that drove whatever engine Gaiven’s client intended.
 
Creating energists was taxing and delicate work that paid generously. Therefore, Gaiven dedicated himself to that and ignored the man who wasn’t going to buy anything. For a time at least.
 
“Is this one of yours?” The cold voice was right next to Gaiven before he even knew its owner had moved from the shelf he’d been perusing. Gaiven jumped, nearly overturning the partially completed energist.
 
“What?” He asked more sharply than one should ever address a customer. He looked up to find that the man was holding up a wolf-skin belt with a buckle made of rare aluminum worked into the shape of a wolf’s head with amber eyes and silver teeth. “Yes. It’s a full body enhancement belt. It can increase strength, speed and agility for short bursts.”
 
“And the mental reflexes and acuity to match.” said the strange man, squinting down at the belt. “Good work. Subtle, but powerful and attuned in perfect proportion to the physical enhancements granted. You must be a great worker of psi?”
 
Gaiven cleared his throat irritably. “Well, no. That was a collaboration commission with Marina Skabalien, the Sensate.”
 
“And where would one find this Sensate?”
 
“Not on Constan’s Isle.” said Gaiven dispassionately. “She’s an odd one, keeps her shop and her home in the Cacophonies. But if you ask me—”
 
The man didn’t. He was already gone, the wolf skin belt abandoned on the work table beside Gaiven.
 
“Hmph.” said Gaiven. “It’ll serve him right to go meeting her unwarned then.”
Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 45 – Arunsteadeles and RidsekesRune Breaker: Chapter 47 – Reclamation >>

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