Mastless, the ship’s pale yiniwood hull looked less like a ship and more like a fallen tower half submerged in the brown waters of Crosarrow Harbor. On deck, crewmen worked to manipulate the cargo crane through its paces loading crates of trade fodder; mostly Crosarrow glassware and dyed cloth, into the hold.
From a distance, the ship was alive with movement this way and that; the frenetic pace of a seagoing vessel readying to set sail. All but a knot of bodies around the brass-domed structure that dominated the ship’s stern. Most of them were the poorest of Crosarrow’s poor; marked less by their ragged clothing and lean appearance then by the brass plates visible on the backs of hands, the tops of feet, up and down arms, and in come cases, in shoulders. Each plate was ornately etched and in the center was a depression was sunk deep into the flesh and attached by screws in the lucky ones, and painful looking melding of flesh and metal in those who weren’t.
Feeder sconces were almost exclusive to those either too sickly or too unskilled to find work elsewhere. And even among them, those with strong tethaes were fed and paid a regular pittance by the City Guild of Industry to Endow the tethaes capacitors that kept the city lights glowing, motivators running and lifts moving. The city even paid bereavement fees for those who died overexerting themselves while Endowing.
The bereavement fee was a balancing factor: a body generated one the order of twenty times the tethaes of a person simply Endowing to exhaustion. Making sure anyone legally operating in the city would be forced to pay exorbitantly kept the unscrupulous from committing mass murder for the sake of expediently charging their capacitors and slowed the ambitious, who might want to horde the power.
The policy also created a sub-underclass of those who would resort to Endowing for fill their bellies, but whose capacity for tethaes was so small that even basic Endowment might kill them outright. No one with any respect or fear for the law would make use of them. Which left those who had nothing but contempt for it.
At the front of the knot of scared faces, mostly human, but some goblins and even fair daoine, stood a man dressed in dark leather breeches and an exorbitant blue silk shirt with black floral designs on the lapels. A leather coat, dyed a darker blue hung from his broad shoulders. He was handsome and young with a rich, brown beard cut in the fashionable style, and long, curly locks.
To either side of him stood Kinathian Lizardmen, tall, brown scaled, and dressed only in thick leather kilts. They each wielded a spear tipped with a jagged length of enchantment hardened glass even though none of the impoverished creatures made a move against them.
The well dressed man sneered his naked disdain at the gathering before him. “Protlenthian is my ship,” He was saying, “And you heard truth: we sail for Tangor Leen in three hours’ time. Some of you are under some misbegotten impression that you’ll be less silt sucking humanoid ballast there than you are here. I don’t really care. What I do care about is that the Prolenthian makes port.”
He stepped to the side, revealing a table set up behind him. On top of it was a stone cylinder carved with intricate whorls that covered its entire face. It sat on a thick base slightly wider than itself with sconces, similar to those pressed into the assembled men and women, encircling it.
“Here’s how we make sure Prolenthian does what I want: our back-up ship’s capacitor. If you want passage, and Gods below, I know you’re not going to pay for it, you’re going to work together to charge it up during the crossing. One Endowment every morning. You miss two days, you go over the side.”
Across the harbor, Leverni Hadheles lowered the watch glasses from her eyes. The sound-thief in her ear made it so she still heard the ripple of murmurs as the latest victims of one of the predatory captains realized the depths of the danger they’d stumbled into. Soon enough, she removed the pattern etched copper tube from her ear too. Without her feeding tethaes into the devices, they went inert. The lenses of the watch glasses turned opaque as the natural state of the obsidian returned.
All living things contained a store of tethaes, but the amount varied wildly from bloodline to bloodline. On one end of the spectrum were those like the people on the boat. On the other were Wellsprings, those who had near limitless wells for the mystic energy. They were the lords of cities like Crosarrow, powering the armor and weapons of their own, private armies with a thought. They had so much power that the could Endow at range, ignoring the loss of energy that came with such a feat.
Leverni occupied the wide middle ground. She had a limit, but wasn’t in danger of more than eventually tiring from running magical devices. She was strong enough that the glasses and sound-thief didn’t register to her more than ten minutes or so of running.
She carefully stored the devices in the pocked of her wool coat and pushed away from the railing. Her vantage point was a bridge spanning the mouth of one of four canals that cut through the industrial sector of the city in order to make it easier to move raw materials in and out. Motivators hidden beneath the surface generated currents that pulled craft along, allowing captains to save on charging their ship’s capacitor.
Unlike the fish and wood-rot stench of the docks, the industrial canals smelled of hot metal and sea salt. Leverni took a deep breath of it as she slowly built up from a walk to a brisk jog to the end of the bridge to the street motivators. She had three hours to act and she knew exactly where to get the help she needed.
It was possible to a person to travel via the street motivator alone if they were agile enough to balance on the waves of force emanating from the twin sets of brass rails running along the sides of the street and quick enough to jump from one set to a crossing set. Children did it all the time.
For everyone else, a few bronze coins hired a stone slab fitted with railings called a street skimmer as well as an experienced operator who would navigate the maze of streets and motivators for you. Leverni gladly handed over her bronze and directed the operator to the Street of Advancement. As she didn’t want anyone knowing exactly where she was headed, she walked the rest of the way.
All around her, the future was being made in the name of Lord Arril of Crosarrow. Unlike other places in the city, where buildings were uniform and streets were as straight as the motivators, the workshops on the Street of Advancement were built to custom dimensions to accommodate whatever research or construction was being conducted within.
Here, a mammoth block with barn sized doors produced prototype flying machines; crescent shaped gliders with brass and silver capacitors at their centers, feeding into carefully etched gold rings meant to provide lift. Crowded up against it was line of more conventional shops where items like watch glasses and sound thieves were manufactured and refined. The workshops fed the war effort, protecting the farms that fed Crosarrow from raids by the Jii horsemen of the eastern plains, or the rival city-states of Darnath and Monarrow. In between,t hey made money on the side selling their innovations to the common man.
Arril was the first to found a guild for Endowment engineers, and the other lords of other cities were still playing catch-up.
Leverni rushed past all of these. Even the breakthroughs of the main street weren’t as exotic and borderline forbidden as what she was after. One street over, on what was more of a very long, winding back alley than a proper thoroughfare, was the place where the fringe sciences set up shop.
Here, strange folk with unproven ideas attempted to do the impossible and improbable; harnessing the power of steam, bottling lightning, or pulling tethaes from the environment instead of their own bodies. That their experiments sometimes succeeded was beyond the point to most people. Powering devices was quick and simple and painful Endowment into capacitors was done by ‘other people’, so who waste time with fires and valves and acid?
Other members of this less than loved community simply practiced techniques that were out of favor or fashion. Techniques that scared the general populace.
Leverni was headed to exactly one such place and she knew it by the faded sign leaned against the wall of an alley between a steamworks and an alchemist’s shop. It was a peach surrounded by tea leaves and the lettering was too far gone to read. A code for those that knew where to look.
Turning down the alley, she nearly ran into a tall, handsome daoine. His every feature was just a bit longer and more slim than a human’s, his eyes being pools of sea-blue with no whites and large pupils. When she side stepped him, he bowed awkwardly as if he’d never done so before.
“The many pardons of Oman Rytha.” He said in a low, clumsy voice before passing by her with a cool breeze in his wake.
Leverni checked her jog enough to look back after him. Her eyes narrowed, but she continued down the alley until she came to the thick, metal door at the end. It was open, allowing the cold within to issue forth. At the height of a Crosarrow summer, it was probably one of the only places that knew cold. Steeling herself against the freezing touch of the iron, she pushed it the rest of the way open and entered.
Inside, the building was a single, cavernous room, rising up in tiers, each lined with railings and connected by stairs There were heavy, round doors in the walls with clear windows cut into them. Endowment powered machinery hummed as it continually drew power from the city’s supply.
On the lowest and most central floor, the one the door opened on to, there was a wheeled table covered with white cloth. A Kinathian Lizardman lay top it, its reddish purple blood soaking the cloth. There was a plate of dull metal in its chest, similar in structure to the ones installed in the poor aboard the Prolentian. A tall figure stopped over the prostrate creature,
Dressed in white with a cloth mask over its face and scarf covering its hair, the figure peered through thick spectacles, down into the sconce as its hands worked delicately with a blood soaked rag.
Leverni glanced back up the alley where the daoine had gone. That explained the cold air. New bodies from the Body Shop weren’t flesh and blood; that was highly illegal. They were simulacra: ice carvings Endowed with tethaes. With the correct type of sconce and capacitor, a person’s consciousness could reside in one of those bodies for several hours to several weeks, depending on the skill of the creator and the amount of work they wanted to put into it. Without further thought, she stepped further inside, pulling the door closed with a metallic thud.
“I don’t get paid in bronze or nickel.” the man looming over the fallen lizardman stated in a clear, disinterested voice. “only platinum or gemstones.”
“And how much plat does it cost to turn a lizard into a daoine?” she asked, sauntering into the middle of the room.
A smile deformed the mask around the figure’s mouth when he placed the voice “Twenty on the hour. Trrilus is a bit of a xenophile.” He made an amused noise at her reaction. “Not in that way. He finds the other races fascinating, enjoys spending time in our skins as it were. That and his incredible plat allowance from Kinathia are things I can appreciate in a diplomat.”
He gestured to the bloody sconce. “I only wish he didn’t insist on removing the sconce every time he returns home. Lizardmen regenerate quickly and it becomes more messy to install every time.”
Leverni closed the space between them and tried hard to pretend she wasn’t overcome by the stench from the lizardman’s blood. She peered into the sconce lazily. “I can’t fault him. Sconces are blasphemy before Oman Rytha.”
The man in white chuckled and finished cleaning out the sconce. From a pocket, he produced a small capacitor made from an iron cylinder topped with a small garnet and slotted it into a socket at the head of the table. The table hummed and then so did a number of silvery threads laced into the floor. A motivator in miniature. Soon, the table was rolling on its own, directly toward a flat, pattern-etched stone with a pedestal set into the side that lay flush with the wall.
“Such reverence, little sister. Thinking of converting to the Clawed God?”
“Not likely, Verl.” She said, reaching up to unfasten the buttons of her dark brown greatcoat. “Your being the mastermind behind the Body Shop is blasphemy enough for our poor mother’s heart.”
Verlsoren Hadheles followed the table onto the lift and gestured for her to follow. Without looking up, her operated the controls, prompting the lift to levitate up three floors. From there, he guided the table by hand to one of the rounded doors in the wall.
“Ah, and a royal spy is great and good in her mind?”
“Honor to our family and a generous stipend to our coffers. I’m sure she hates that.” Levreni said dryly.
Verlsoren took a pair of heavy leather gloves from a tray built into the underside of the table and pulled them on. “And yet, the good and honorable spy is in the lowly hovel of the foremost expert in tethaes transference. For some reason, I feel it might be Lord Arril paying me this visit and not my sister.”
The grabbed the freezing door handle in his gloved hands, twisted it, and with great effort, pulled it open. Chill air and white mist billowed out, obscuring the irregular shape within. Holding back a shiver, Verlsoren reached in and pulled the object out onto the table, aided by rollers within.
It was a lump of ice; eight feet in length and five wide. Curls of freezing mist wafted off it or seemed to pour off the sides.
Now was the moment where he found why Leverni had been silent. She stood well away from the ice, greatcoat open, light shirt pulled up. It would have disturbed him to see his sister in that state no matter what, but at the moment, his mind didn’t even register her exposed stomach or flat breasts. Because between those breasts was a disc of bronze, recessed just below the sternum: a sconce. And there was but one reason to place a sconce there.
“Four devils of wind, Lev, who did that to you?” He gasped.
Leverni didn’t bother to conceal the sconce, but dropped her arms to the side. “Tesh Kathpara, the royal mechanist. And don’t look at me like that: War is on the horizon, Verl. And across the sea, they’re starting to keep records of what spied from the Cities look like; or magical recordings of every detail. Your research is only thing keeping them from effectively blinding us.”
Lips pursed, Verlsoren looked away. “If Kathpara can install the sconce, why involve me?”
“Because it isn’t Lord Arril here asking for this, it’s your sister.” said Leverni. She folded her arms and leaned against the railing. “Do you remember the pirate that sank father’s mercantile fleet? The reason father killed himself rather than let our family lose their titles?”
In spite of himself, Verlsoren nodded. Often had he fantasized that that man would one day unknowingly come into his shop and bear his chest to his scalpel.
“He’s here. In a ship called Prolenthian. At this very moment, he is preparing to drain a cadre of innocent men of tethaes until they die just to power his ship.” She stepped closer to her brother. “And the only thing stopping me is the law that the Lord’s spies cannot carry out an assassination without orders.”
Verlsoren didn’t answer right away, so she came closer and put a hand on his shoulder. “Who is this block for, Verl? Can you really tell me that their needs are greater than father’s?”