The machine made thunderous noise, three metallic clangs followed by the harsh hiss of steam, then three clangs again. It was a heartbeat, albeit not of the organic kind, and the contraption was a creature, devouring bars of bronze, silver and gold under the watchful eye of its keeper. Chief Artificer Eddis oversaw the monstrosity, his lined face impassive, but his blue eyes alert.
"Since you're here, Your Grace, I take it you've finished the first phase of the plan," the man commented casually, as he leaned against a lever and watched his beast spout out its product.
Despite the title and the bland tone of his voice, he showed the most crass disrespect by not acknowledging her otherwise or greeting her properly. He clearly thought himself indispensable, and the Duchess made note of this. She would soon be in the position of having to prove to the artificer that his value was much less than he assumed. But until then...
"You've heard of the outbreaks, then?" she asked tersely.
"Yes. I assume you're here to take me up to task, then?"
"Not at all. You warned me about side effects."
Eddis turned towards Duchess Rhiannon, Reagent of Salica. She looked at him with bright green eyes. Her hair was done up in elaborate loops and held with jeweled pins and her dress had the cut of a military coat more than a womanly garment, something in the collar and the muted blue of its color reminiscent of an officer's uniform. This was not an unusual style of dress for the leaders of Salica, but the Duchess still had enough feminine grace to seem out of place in the grimy factory.
But Eddis realized that wasn't what actually bothered him about her. What bothered him was that she had the serene and youthful face of a person who slept well at night, even though she of all people should have been kept awake.
"They were graver than anticipated," Eddis said in a clipped voice. "And I assumed you'd be upset by this."
"Only two hundred dead, almost all of them old or already infirm."
"Acceptable loss, I take it?" A touch of bitterness slipped into his voice, but he could not care enough to hold it back.
The Duchess smiled. Eddis tried to see something sinister in that smile, something predatory or cruel, but she was only a charming young woman, giving a delicate smile. He found himself hating her for it.
"It was a price, Eddis," she said.
Eddis let out a cynical bark of laughter.
"A price, indeed," he muttered. "You've been doing your reading."
"I pay attention." She made that sound like a threat.
Eddis released the lever he was holding. The machine made a grinding noise, like the keening of an injured animal, and sputtered to a stop.
"But do you understand what you are doing?" he asked, hopping down from the platform. He circled around to the left and reached down into the large vat holding his work. He swiftly grabbed a piece of silver, still hot from being minted, and flicked it towards the Duchess.
She caught it in mid-air, raising an eyebrow at the gesture, and inspected the coin.
"Understand? I understand that I've chosen a path which will bring misery and ruin to people who are innocent. I've decided that it is a price I am willing to pay."
"Because people mean nothing to you," Eddis almost growled.
"Because those people, in particular, mean nothing to me," she corrected. "They are not mine. If their leaders are incapable of protecting them, then they deserve no protection."
"We don't choose our place of birth."
The Duchess laughed sardonically, as if there were a different significance to Eddis's words that even he himself did not know.
"You've had the antidote yourself, yes?" he asked instead.
"Oh, yes. The court was the first place it was distributed," she said. "Two deaths," she then added distractedly, still inspecting the silver coin.
Eddis pressed his lips tight together and smothered the dark feeling inside him.
"What we are doing is evil."
"I prefer to call it unconventional warfare," the Duchess replied. "Tell me, what did you say when my father lead the campaign against the North?"
"The King rose to fight for his country, Your Grace," Eddis bristled. "He shed blood honorably, on the battlefield, not like this." Not like his bastard child, he wanted to add, but bit his tongue.
"Yet the blood he shed was that of innocents. He attacked defenseless villages, allowed his men to pillage and rape their way through half a country and left only a trail of scorched earth in his passing," she pointed out. "I know this. I was there."
He felt his mouth dry at this. Eddis had heard, much like others, of the affection the late king had had for his bastard daughter, taking her everywhere he went. He wished he could justify what the Duchess had become through the things she'd seen during the many war campaigns she'd witnessed as a child, but that would mean admitting that King Cadoc had been responsible for this creature standing in front of him now and his loyalty to the Crown did not permit him.
"King Cadoc was a good man," Eddis said instead.
"I'm sure you must be right," the Duchess only replied.
For a moment, it had been in her power to shatter his illusions. Eddis did not know what to think of the fact that she chose not to.
"May I keep this?" she asked, holding up the silver coin.
"Ah-- yes, I suppose so," Eddis shrugged, jarred by the sudden change of subject. "We can start switching out the coins soon enough. We've already arranged transport with the banks."
The Duchess smiled charmingly again. She pocketed the coin.
* * *
"This is it, then?" the old man asked, raising the coin to his eye. "This is the reason I've been bedridden for the past week?"
"Not at all," the Duchess replied as she sat primly by his bed. "The reason for your illness was the antidote meant to ward against the coin's effect."
The old man shook his head, incredulous.
"If that was the antidote, I'd hate to think what the poison itself does."
The man rubbed a thumb over the semi-profile of King Cadoc, then turned the coin to inspect its ridges. There, almost too faint to detect, were letters of some arcane alphabet, spelling out a phrase with no meaning to him. He had seen many things in his life as Duke of Madiya, but never before the writing of the old magi.
"And what does it do?" he wondered out loud.
"We don't know, at this point," the Duchess shrugged. "It is a curse. A poison of the mind, according to the books."
"And it will work?"
"We'll have to see. Trade with Port Veigh restarts next month. I am meeting the delegation for a final time today."
"Mm," the old duke hummed thoughtfully. "You deal in evil things, Your Grace. There's always a price to pay for these things."
"Of course," she agreed. "You're not the first to tell me this."
* * *
There were no reports, at first. Only stories, circulating through the merchants coming from Port Veigh, short and strange anecdotes shared during transactions, given little thought. When the reports came, they arrived to the Duchess's desk in neat stacks from spies all over the archipelago, written in careful cursive, dryly relaying events.
She read these reports calmly while sipping her tea. Some details were unnecessary-- two headed goats and wells drying up-- but they served only to enhance the increasingly grim picture painted by the reports.
There were little things, at first; a sailor who killed an entire tavern of people after losing at a game of cards; a saint who gouged his eyes out; a tax collector who drove his wagon into a mud pit and then tried to set it on fire. Isolated incidents of insanity with no discernible cause.
As the months whittled by, tithes were raised in Port Veigh. There was a minor peasant uprising, but those were common enough in the archipelago. Fishermen were starting to disappear, but that could be ascribed to a particularly violent storm season. The Prince of Port Veigh fell out with his son and only heir to the throne.
The Duchess took note of all this, but then, so did Eddis.
The stories reached the Chief Artificer as well, eventually. He listened to them carefully, his lips tightened in a narrow line and his brows knitted together, but it seemed he could not escape the words even if he wanted to. His work and its consequences followed him and found him through the mouths of all the people he encountered. The tithes were raised and the peasants were ailing. Their children starved for the noblemen to feast. The sea devoured fishermen, leaving incomplete families on their shore, robbed of their breadwinners and the boats that assured their livelihoods. The Prince was old, but still banished his son over a long-passed transgression. The wolves were circling Port Veigh, and Salica was leading the pack.
And Eddis listened, he heard, he understood. The stories and the knowledge of his sin nestled deep in the pit of his stomach, like a dark weight. He ate little and slept even less, but his apathy that now marked his existence was sometimes replaced by anger when he saw the Duchess's visage during her public appearances, when he saw her elaborate hairstyles and her young, serene face.
* * *
"Harsh times for Port Veigh," the old Duke shook his head.
"Good times for Salica, then," the Duchess replied, her back towards him as she stared out the window.
"An odd choice, though. Why Port Veigh? They're hardly our greatest enemies."
"No. Our greatest enemies are fighting each other over petty reasons. Port Veigh is above all of that."
"Ah. And that makes them dangerous?"
"Perhaps. But it also makes them unnerving."
The Duke laughed.
"And I thought you were above pettiness," he remarked.
"Above pettiness? No, old man. I had Port Veigh cursed. I'd think that would indicate the exact opposite."
"And the price we were talking about?"
"Each person pays according to their purse."
* * *
The reports still came in; the stories still circulated.
Eddis heard them all. In his mind, there was now a map, a spiderweb of misery and misfortune across the entire Port Veigh archipelago, tethered by words carved into bronze, silver and gold.
Storm season unleashed its vitriol upon the thirteen islands making up the archipelago. Communication broke down and famine scoured the lands. The sea gave no fish and the trees no fruit.
Eddis stopped eating, just as the Veighnans did not eat. His mind was a spiderweb, but his stomach was a ball of tar and it was wound so tightly that it would accept no nourishment, nor did it seem to need any. He stopped keeping track of the time, because otherwise he might have been alarmed at the fact that he went on for two weeks subsisting only on anger and turmoil. Instead, he wandered the taverns, listening, and whenever the Duchess made an appearance, he was also there, watching and resenting.
One day, he started coughing and did not stop until he regurgitated black tar. He wiped his mouth and carried on.
The next day and the day after that, the black tar returned. And one day after it started, he vomited until the blackness came over his eyes and he though, finally, that the price had been payed. He realized how foolish that thought had been when he woke up later in a warm bed, with a soft-stepping healer tending to him. His hunger, long since forgotten, returned to devour him, but his sleep was even farther away.
And in one of his sleepless hours, the Duchess visited him, pulling a chair next to his bed and smiling at him with pity. She had no tar in her stomach and no wrinkles around her eyes. Her hands were folded primly in her lap.
"Why?" he rasped, scandalized at her ostentatious good health.
"Each person pays according to their purse," she replied. "And you were willing to pay more."