Author's Note: With a little gasp of horror, I realised that I hadn't anything to write after Nightbane. There's always the prospect of EoE, but to be honest I don't really want to go about writing it, especially when I've had three flops at doing it.
So I decided to sleep on it. Turns out I didn't do a lot of sleeping that night.
A few thoughts later, I woke up and did some research on iron smelting and blast furnaces, gathered some data on steel making, especially mild steel and something on the workings of wrought iron.
Then I ended up with this. There's still no theme as yet, but I can already feel that nebulous proto-theme lurking away somewhere in the idea like a bug under the carpet.
"Burnination." "Burn-I-nation", "Burn-in-nation", "Burning nation". Haha. Black dragon make funny pun. Haha. I'm so witty.
In a place and time like this, one can't help but wonder how there can be so much death in so small a land.
The salted ham helped, though. Balanced precariously on the edge of this section of the Bulwark, I chewed on the last hunk I'd brought along with me, feeling rock salt crystals the size of my little claw crunch between my jaws as I chewed and swallowed. Wasn't very often I could give myself a day off like this, what with the increasing demand for minerals all around—even small-timers like me had some of the benefits trickle down to me. At least, that was how I'd procured the salted ham in this place where nothing grew or lived.
Well, almost nothing. Beneath my clawed feet a trio of green-scales laboured, tending to a row of scraggly trees and shrubs, watering them, placing down mulch, laying down enchantments. Digging in dry, dusty soil that was almost as red as my own scales with their bare claws, they turned the ground around their precious plants into a dirty, clayey mess. Why anyone would pay them a stipend in order to do this was beyond me, but every one-twelfth of a season I'd see Ar'idanth, Z'alyar and A'simuth at the railway stop, carting off crates and boxes in a trolley.
"…burned. Scorched, salted, and then scorched again, the whole cycle repeating itself again and again amidst the oddest of magics. How there's a fairly uncontaminated water source near here only the Dragonmother knows, but I'm glad for it."
"Can you believe it? By the sheer amount of coal laid down in the ground, one can only imagine the density of vegetation that once existed here."
"Hello, druids!" I shouted, looking down at the trio. They looked up, and Ar'idanth scowled so widely I could see it clearly even at this distance, his tail thrashing at the ground.
"No more charcoal jokes, H'ssath! No more charcoal jokes, especially those involving your namesake! None of the trees here are good for making charcoal, and herbaceous plants do not lend themselves to making charcoal despite your jokes! You're not being very funny when you do that, so be quiet!"
"So forgive me for being polite—"
"Go away, smelter," Ar'idanth said, his voice softening just a little. "Go back to your ores, moulds, furnaces and fluxes, and leave us alone. We're already fed up enough with this stupid, pointless, hopeless assignment we're stuck with, so you don't have to add on to our misery." Without waiting for a response, Ar'idanth grabbed a small sapling from Z'alyar's leathery palms, jabbing it into the ground with such vehemence I was half-surprised it didn't snap in two.
"Please don't disturb us anymore," Z'alyar said as she handed her colleague a small bottle of yellowish, viscous liquid that was quickly emptied about the sapling's roots. "Ar'idanth has been very upset about our recent orders from our homeland."
I got the hint. Wiping salty juices off my claws and onto the Bulwark, I leapt off the wall that had once protected much of the world from them, spreading my wings and catching an updraft to soar away home.
When my feet touched the ground and I folded my wings, there were a few carts full of sacks waiting outside my back door, their wheels dutifully clamped tight and immovable. Attached to one of them was a thin sheet of cheap iron.
I snorted and held the small flame long enough for me to read the invoice by, the runes scrawled upon the metal barely legible in the wavering light of my fire:
Bill of sale to customer: H'ssath
Twenty-four Weights of low-phosphorous hematite—two gold, eleven silver.
Six Weights of high-quality coke—two gold.
Nine Weights of limestone—three silver.
Delivery costs—eleven copper.
Total cost—five gold, two silver, and eleven copper. Payment made previously in agreed amount of both currency and dried mixed jerky. Please present receipt in case of any discrepancies. Note that payment made in in forms other than standard currency cannot be reimbursed. What do you expect us to do, uneat your food?
Before I realized what I was doing, I'd reached into a sack and tested a lump of the greyish ore against a fang, biting down on it and chewing slowly, letting the ore's flavour spread within my jaws, the way I'd learned in the Guild as an apprentice before my wings had emerged.
Adequately bitter. Unsatisfied, I swallowed, closed my eyes and sniffed at what remained of the lump, taking a few good whiffs of the sample before dropping it back into the sack. Whatever else they did, the siblings did do good work.
Well. There was going to be plenty of work tomorrow. I'd just shifted the sacks in, hung up my pouch and finished warming up my bed when a soft rapping sounded on the stone of my back door.
Squirming on the glowing gravel of my bed, I tucked my head between my arms and pretended not to hear it. Perhaps they'd give up and go away; nothing much was getting out of a properly-heated bed.
The rapping sounded again, more insistent this time.
"Go away," I growled, small plumes of smoke drifting out of my snout. "This establishment is closed. Come again tomorrow if you've got business with me."
"H'ssath, it's me. Open up."
At the sound of that voice, my eyelids jerked open. Choking and spluttering on my own flame as I rushed to unbar and open the door, I shoved my sister into my living quarters before hastily barring the door again.
"By the Dragonlord, what were you thinking standing out there at this time of day all alone, H'ssdar? You know full well it's not safe out there, even though the Black Dragonflight has been long gone from these lands," I hissed as I lit a low coal fire in the hearth and hung out a kettle to boil. "Druids just said today the oddest of magics once went around these parts. No telling what they summoned up during the old war that's lurking beyond the Bulwark that's waiting to bite off people's heads and wings when they've got their backs turned."
"I'm all right, brother," my sister spat, leaning on the table and folding her wings against her body. "To me, the druids are just another bunch of folks to squeeze every copper out of. Besides, I have my bolt-pistol. I'm not your little sister anymore, not in that sense. Besides, it's only a bunch of dark clouds that won't leave the horizon. What's so terrifying about it?"
Soon enough, the kettle was steaming and I poured troughs of boiling water for the both of us, silence reigning as we drank. At last, I broke the silence. "You're here early; the train's not supposed to arrive until tomorrow. Aren't you supposed to be with the family's cargo?"
H'ssdar shrugged and raised her head from the trough.. "Neighbouring colonies didn't have much to sell this time round, so the train travelled light and made good time. Need anything to fill up this one-room sinkhole of yours, brother?"
I bared my teeth. "Now, you know it's not my fault my workshop takes up a whole lot of space, especially since I installed that converter and enchanted it."
"You've hardly touched the preserves you bought from me the last time—"
"Because, dear sister, preserves here are supposed to be things you keep, not something you greedily devour at the first opportunity. What do you expect us to do if something happens to the railway for long enough that our food goes bad?"
"—Are hardly as reliable as salt, nitrates and drying. You and Mother can't understand that." Finishing the last of my water, I got up and put away the troughs.
"Mother still wants you home and away from this borderland," H'ssdar said, averting her gaze from mine.
"Tell me something I don't know," I growled. "Out with it. What did you come here for?"
"You didn't come here alone in the middle of the night just to make small talk with me, and you'd have waited in the luxury of your first-class train cabin till morning, if you wanted to merely do business as usual. Out. With. It. You're wasting my time."
Glancing from side to side, H'ssdar leant on the table and lowered her voice to a hiss. "You sure there's no one around? I don't want anyone overhearing this."
"Yes, yes," I snapped, nearly melting the kettle in annoyance. If this dragged on, I wouldn't even have the energy to maintain a decent flame tomorrow, let alone keep on blowing for a Watch or two. "What amazing money-making scheme have you come up with this time?"
Wordlessly, H'ssdar reached into a pouch below her holster and drew out two rough, blackish lumps, each one the size of my fist. Setting them on the table, she drummed her claws on stone and glared at me, eye-shards glimmering a faint orange as if daring me to put down whatever she was plotting.
"What in the name of the Sentinels—? What's so special about these rocks?" Picking up one of the rocks, I was about to chomp down on it when H'ssdar flung herself forward and snatched it from me.
"Don't eat it. I don't know if I can get more samples of this."
"Well then, you'll just have to tell me exactly what this is, if you won't even let me do taste identification, sister."
"Just…just don't do it. Touch it, sniff it, anything, just don't destroy any of these samples! But tell me what you can about these rocks, brother."
Sighing, I picked up the other lump and scratched it with a claw studying it in the flickering firelight. Hard, with hints of crystals in it. Igneous? A dusty smell that stung my snout with a hint of acridity…no. Not sulphur. Magical elements, almost certainly, yet there were none of the tell-tale crystals or multicoloured hues that always signified arcanite ore.
"I don't know. I can tell you that it's likely to be igneous and has magical properties that are likely to be common, but I still can't pinpoint what exactly it is. Definitely not on the list of ores I was forced to memorize during my apprenticeship."
H'ssdar grunted as I set another trough of boiling water before her. "I thought you were reasonably adept at this."
"Haven't worked with much but iron and steel for a long time. Besides, taste identification is a large part of it, and you didn't want me to do that. Now about the rocks—"
"I found two dragonets playing with them at the last colony. They were using white flame on them, and they were merely glowing a little despite that. Paid them a copper to sell them to me."
I frowned. White flame? Of course, younglings couldn't burn that hot, but it still didn't make sense. "Did you ask where did they get them?"
"They pointed beyond the Bulwark. If the train hadn't been scheduled to leave, I'd have gone there myself to investigate."
"You're not going there, H'ssath. That place is evil."
"You don't understand, do you? If this really is an ore of some sort that we don't even know of, think of the potential applications. We could get rid of all the cooling enchantments dragonsmiths like you need for your equipment, for one, and replace them with this material! So many uses for something that can actually withstand the Red Flight's fire on its own! We could sell all this and be rich beyond our wildest imagination; Mother would be so proud!
"The Black Dragonflight is gone, brother. Gone. Mother was there the day they were all taken away by the Golds to be slaves. She saw them. Don't let a few silly tales and imaginings keep you from money. "
Sighing, I walked over and set upright the stool H'ssdar had knocked over in her excitement. Yes, the idea was appealing, discovering a new metal, but…was that why the Black Dragonflight never bothered with digging up ore despite the war? Iron, coal, tin, gold, lead, all untouched; the only minerals this place seemed to lack were arcane crystals and accompanying arcanite. Because they had better materials only native to their lands? Was that how they'd held out so long? And if so, why hadn't we captured any of them? Or maybe we had, but the government…I really needed to sleep; my head was beginning to hurt despite the fire.
H'ssdar's words cut through my brain like a knife. "Well, brother? Will you take a look at these?"
"Get yourself to an alchemist, sister," I groaned. "I'm not that great an assayer."
"Already have a few other samples I'm taking to cousin," H'ssdar replied. "Brother, I think you underestimate the importance of keeping this discovery in the family. Besides, you've got the hottest, brightest flame of anyone I know; if anyone can coax the metal out of that thing, it's you. That's why my clients all want more of your products, especially pig iron. I know it's bad form for a merchant to appear too overeager, but I'm begging you—"
"You seem awful sure there's something to be had in these rocks. Oh, all right. I'll see what I can do with these rocks by the next time the train comes around. No promises, though."
H'ssdar's jaws split into a small grin. "Good. Knew I could count on you, brother. Is there anything you need? Ammunition for your rifle?"
"Just…just let me sleep. I'll talk business with you tomorrow."
"Fine. I'll leave you then." H'ssdar rose to leave, but I caught her by the wing and led her back.
"No. I'm not letting you go out there at this time of night. You can sleep in the hearth if you want, but you're staying here. Mother would slaughter me should something happen to you."
"No. You said the family's cargo's not a problem. Stay."
Looking back and forth between the door and me, H'ssdar finally gave up and padded over to the fireplace, curling up on the burning coals and letting the flames lick at her scales. Not even bothering to warm my bed again, I flopped into it and was asleep before long.