Shank gasped for air, body curling up around the ache in his chest. The Caprile rant that sleeted down from the top of the stairs he had just been kicked down washed around his ears like a faint buzzing as he moaned and tried to press away the pain in his wrists, hands, knees, Black Marrows! Every damn inch of his body hurt. But lying on the cobbles was good. Yes, they were wet and slick with probably far more than just water, and the smell was a cross between a tannery and the bad end of a sickbed, but the coolness seeping through his thin clothes soothed his aches.
Vaarya had obviously finished cursing his line backwards and forwards and if the amount of spit he could feel sliding down his neck was any indication, the goat-faced bitch had done a thorough job of it. The door at the top of the stairs slammed above him, but that door had never closed properly anyway and he could hear it flapping against the wall as Vaarya stomped back to her pokey room, her hooves banging against the wood of the stairs.
He wasn't sure how long he laid there, a small ball of pain on the cobbles. Eventually he tried putting some weight onto his wrists and pushed himself to his knees. His head swam for a moment, but he stuck at it. He had never been big, or strong, but equally, it meant he was light and he soon found himself on his arse, and for a moment, not entirely sure of how he had got there.
'Kicked out by goat-bitch, a'right' he murmured to himself, grinding the heel of his palm into his chest, where Vaarya's hoof had impacted. 'I am a'thinking that means I am homeless again, my Shank my mate.'
A moment later and he realised he had been talking to himself. Obviously he had smacked his head harder than he thought. A moment after that and Shank remembered that he was sitting on his arse in the middle of the alley in the Freshfields District. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but if some caprimen lads came across a suffering pink they might want to see him hurt a good bit more and in his present state Shank did not feel up to running very far. With a loud groan, he managed to get his feet under him and get to a shaky stand.
A'right Shank, you might be milking this one a touch. Don't have a thought that Vaarya will hear your weeping and take a'pity on you.
He looked up at the building that had been his home for the past two years. He noted the crumbling brickwork, the sagging roof, and the missing tiles that meant that his room had been wetter than a mer's bollocks and decided that he was better off without the place. He spat on the step and flicked off the silent presence of Vaarya, may the Marrows enjoy her company a good long time.
That was that then. Shank, stuffed his hands into his pockets and, shoulders hunched, turned his back on his home and began the walk into the city.
He wasn't entirely sure where he was going. He had a stash of some money and the things he found valuable up on the roofs of the Shallows, and he found his feet taking him towards the bay. It would at least be a dry place to sleep, the eaves of one building overhanging another enough to give a warm, comfortable place to lie, especially with the additions that Shank had made to it over the years. It paid for an enterprising young man to have a place to himself, especially if landlords felt they had the right to go through their tenants' belongings when said tenant was out trying to make a living.
Thinking of making a living and Shank started to bear towards the dockyards, the source of all his present misery. It was not as if it had been his fault that he wasn't getting paid, he hadn't hauled up great big shell and blocked the docks had he? No, those whiney mer bastards had, and there hadn't been much call for Shank's expertise with no ships being able to get in. All his contacts with the captains and warehouse masters had been worth exactly nothing to anyone else, and he had a couple weeks with no pay. So he had gone down with the other human dock workers, jeering at the strikers in the harbour, throwing bricks whenever one got close enough to dry land. But that had got boring very quickly, and definitely wasn't putting coins in his pocket.
His meanderings had reached the yards. Humans loitered in groups, mostly men, though not nearly as many as there would be come the sun. They eyed him with hard glances, sizing him up and judging his allegiances. Shank saw a face that he recognised and nodded, the returning nod approval enough for the rest of the men and they turned back to what they had been doing, which for most of them had been glaring at the murky waters of the harbour.
In more normal times, the men would have been joined by smatterings of mer, the wide-eyed fishmens' mouths constantly gulping down air. These days however, the dockyard mer stayed in the water, tending to the massive shells that caused all the trouble.
In theory, Shank had known that the truly deepwater mer lived in nomadic groups, centred around the giant nautilus that they herded and rested on, but it was an entirely different matter to see the immense, iridescent structures rising out of the waters of his harbour. They were easily as tall as any building nearby and towered over most, rippled with umber stripes and jagged protrusions. When he had been hanging around for the first few days of the strike, Shank had seen the occasional horrifying tentacle reach out of the water, grasp around blindly before silently sliding back into the, thankfully, grime-obscured depths of the sea. Though the shells had been tugged into the centre of the bay, very effectively blocking the path of any ship, no one sat too close to the water's edge, the almost atavistic terror of those orange serpentine tentacles keeping the men away.
Shank spat into the dark waters. He didn't know why he had come here. Nothing was changing and nothing would change until either the dockmasters agreed to the wage increase for the mer workers or Parliament decided to break the strike. It was time to stop being such a mopey, sentimental child. Yeah, he had liked working the ships, meeting with the captains who had sailed to all kinds of far off places. Handling the slips of paper with their endless varieties of script; the archaic High Querish; the spiral tracts of Caprile; or the runic Bedden; it had been like touching the mind of a different place. Even the notes scrawled in Ventish had been exciting, secret knowledge that would affect the wealth and plans of the powerful men and women who ran the city. Working as a go-between for the ships had taught him to read and allowed him to travel, even if was only in his head.
Shank mumbled a curse and kicked a loose cobble. Dreaming of far off places wasn't going to pay his rent or feed him. He had to be realistic – knuckle down, find some work. So, trying to get in with the caravans hadn't panned out, but maybe Servi could find him something to do behind the bar, or in the kitchen? Sweet Silgur, as long as it wasn't wading through shit, Shank would do pretty much anything for some coin. He hunched his shoulders and stuffing his hands deep into his pockets, turned away from the harbour.
Tomorrow morning, he would start looking for some other work. Tonight he wanted nothing but a walk.
It began to spit down with rain.
Shank did not really like the Newflowers District. He did not like its lazy radicalism. He wandered the gas lamp lit streets glaring at all the buildings. The people who lived here didn't know what it was like to live, not really. They sat in their coffee bars and complained about the plight of the working man, moaned that their art was unappreciated and undervalued by idiots. But each and every one of them would leap up at the chance of getting a wealthy patron to support them, print their books or buy their masterpieces. Even the so-called dissenters limited their activities to publishing pamphlets that did little more than endlessly repeat slogans that they only half-believed and would never act on.
Academics and intellectuals. Marrows take the lot of them.
Shank stiffened up when he saw someone almost fall around the corner ahead of him. Were this Freshfields, he would already be edging out of sight, but it was Newflowers, and Silgur be damned if he was going to hide from some puffed up old fart. He started towards the wheezing man.
The man still hadn't seen Shank, he was spying around the corner he had just turned, jowly face flushed red with what looked like unaccustomed exertion. As Shank drew closer, he could see that the man's suit was reasonably well made, if of a cut popular sometime before Shank had been born – it was also straining at the seams.
The man turned with a yelp and clutched at his chest when he finally noticed Shank. He also fumbled with something in his other hand, a cloth wrapped object that the man got a hold of and held tightly to his belly.
'You scared me boy. Gave me quite the fright.' The man did not stop peering around the corner as he said this, barely even glancing at Shank.
'Who a'you calling boy old man?' Shank said, stepping closer. That got his attention alright, and he turned fully to face Shank, his small eyes blinking rapidly. Yet even still, with Shank right up in his face, the man could not help but look around the corner of the building.
And something around that corner truly scared him. The man seemed to sag, his shoulders dropping, his red face going pale and his lip trembling beneath his thick moustache. He swallowed deeply, and Shank could see his apple bobbing in his fat neck.
Suddenly the man had turned and had a hand on Shank's shoulder. He tried to push him away, but he was fat and a lot stronger than he looked. The object was pushed up against Shank's chest.
'Take it boy,' the man hissed, his eyes madman wide, 'Quickly, take it, it's yours.'
Without another word, the man grabbed Shank's hand and pressed the object into it. He then started running down the road, before turning around another corner and disappearing from view.
Shank stared after the man.
What had just happened?
People dressed like he had been were not supposed to be running around the streets after dark in the rain – it just didn't happen. Maybe he was one of those crazy rich people you heard about, locked away by their families as an unsightly embarrassment? Shank looked down at the thing in his hand and started walking slowly down the road. It felt round, like a ball, and almost filled his palm completely. It was also quite heavy, it was hard work to hold it up with one arm, and that wasn't just because Shank had arms like malnourished twigs.
The cloth it had been wrapped in wasn't anything special; it looked like the weird old man had grabbed a scarf to wrap the thing up in. Shank dug his fingers into a fold of the material to pull it open.
He stopped his walk.
Slowly, he turned the object in his hands towards the light of a nearby lamppost. His breath caught in his throat and a noise escaped in a choke.
Under the dim light of the gas lamp, the small slit of the object that he had uncovered gleamed. Gleamed like gold.
Shank quickly covered it up again, looking around wildly, but there was no one around but a tall man in a hat who was walking quickly the other way. Shank swallowed, mind racing before he started striding eastwards, towards the Shallows and his hidey-hole.
His arms were hurting before too long, but he refused to loosen his grip.
The dark figure stood in the middle of the road, tall and pillar straight. One gloved hand was fiddling with the brim of his hat, obscuring the view of his face. The other arm was by his side, the hand clenching and unclenching in a slow rhythm.
It was a nice hat.
Wide brimmed, it kept the rain off his face. He supposed that he should have a moment of appreciation for his coat, which was streaming with rivulets of water, but it just didn't have the appeal of his hat. He felt it gave him a rakish charm.
The beat of the rain on his hat soothed him, took the edge of his annoyance. His quarry had escaped him, which, seeing as he was a fairly fat old man, had been something of an embarrassment to M. Hat. He had become confused in all the back streets of Newflowers and ended up having to retrace his steps.
But he was not worried – M. Hat did not get worried, it was like he lacked the glands necessary for concern or anxiety. He was sure he was on the right trail though, and Dester Lutanilash had always been something of a recluse – he didn't have many places to run to. His friends were either M. Hat's friends or were a long way behind them. There was no one who Lutanilash was going to be running to. So it was just a matter of time.
He shook his head, letting the rain water that had accumulated drip off and started walking quickly in the direction he was sure the musty academic had fled in.
The streets were fairly empty at this time of night – M. Hat had seen a few people huddling under their coats, even an ichthyican who had stripped to the waist in the rain. M. Hat had smiled as he had watched the mer massaging the moisture into the smooth scaly skin of his head, neck and lower arms. As the chase wound its way down through Bashford Avenue, he had pulled his hat lower on his head – the stink of barely managed magic unsettling him and he picked up his pace, almost knocking down a waist high golem in his hurry. Fortunately, it seemed Lutanilash hadn't lingered there either, and M. Hat could leave the thaumaturges and their experiments behind him.
Suddenly, he started and a transformation came over him. M. Hat's spine tingled and his eyes widened, pupils expanding. He extended his stride and stretched out his neck. He had seen a foot going around a building – Lutanilash's foot, he was sure of it. He would recognise that tarnished silver buckle anywhere, even at night.
Hat had an eye for shiny things. His waistcoat veritably dripped with chains and watches, pins and brooches. A swollen purple tongue lolled out of his mouth and licked his thin bloodless lips as he thought about those buckles, about how well they would fit on his shoes. How rakish he would look – very classy.
He swept around the corner, one hand wrapping around the lamppost to pull him about, his black coat billowing behind him. Fixated on the direction he thought Lutanilash would be heading in, he only caught the boy wandering down the street in the corner of his vision. Short, thin and scruffily dressed, M. Hat forgot about him almost immediately, nostrils flaring as he sucked in the scent of his quarry.
Around and one more building, into a narrow alleyway, and M. Hat finally caught sight of Lutanilash again. The scholar was struggling for breath while desperately looking for a way around the dead end that blocked the end of the alley, the backside of a tenement. M. Hat slowed down to a leisurely stroll, pleased at the location Lutanilash had guided them to. The houses on either side seemed to loom over the alley, leaning to create a tiny rectangle of grey cloud above them and there were no windows to give witness to what might happen below.
The rain dripped down onto the cobbles and detritus that filled the alley, a pitter-patter of expectant drumming.
'Good evening Dester.' M. Hat said, a smile playing on his pale lips.
Lutanilash spun in place, his blue eyes wide as he backed up against the wall. His lower lip began to tremble as his palms found the ruthless brickwork behind him.
'M-m-m...' he babbled.
'Ah, how remiss of me!' M. Hat said, interrupting Lutanilash and taking a long step closer, 'We were never formally introduced by our mutual friend, were we?' M. Hat lifted the clothing he was named for from his head an inch and bowed his head politely, 'I am... M. Hat.'
Lutanilash wrapped his arms protectively around himself, and murmured, 'I don't have it. I don't have it anymore.'
Hat stepped closer still, an arm's length away now, 'Surus was very disappointed with you Dester. The orb wasn't yours to take. Now I know you had it, so where is it?'
Something like defiance flared in Lutanilash's eyes and he clenched his hands into fists, 'Surus is disappointed in me? Hat! He is the one who has lost sight of the cause! I was trying to protect- '
M. Hat raised a hand to silence the man, 'The reasons for your betrayal are irrelevant Dester.' In the darkness of the alley, Hat's arm was a blur as it grabbed Lutanilash's collar and forced his head hard against the bricks. 'Where is it Lutanilash!'
The musty old scholar cried out hoarsely, his voice barely above a squeak, 'I don't have it! I don't know where it is now! Please Hat!' A tear or perhaps a drop of rain slid down his cheek, tracking the lines in his face.
M. Hat closed the gap between their faces. His own long pale features almost brushing the blunt red face of Lutanilash. He did not raise his voice, but gently began to squeeze Lutanilash's neck, 'I know you had it when this hunt began Dester.' Hat's mouth made quiet, slow snapping movements towards Lutanilash's lips, his jaws containing a few too many pearly white points. 'Where did you stash it?'
He tried to shake his head, but 's grip did not allow much more than a wobble of his jowls. 'Di'n't hi' it'
Hat turned his head so his ear was facing Lutanilash's mouth, 'I'm sorry Dester, I didn't quite catch that.'
Lutanilash strained his neck, trying to create some room to talk, 'Didn' hide it... gave i' away.'
This surprised and he relaxed his grip, blinking slowly in confusion. He tried to think back to all the people who had crossed his path over the course of the chase. It could have been any one of them. The citizens of the city of Beg Torphimel might not be the most charitable, but few would say no to an offer of a golden orb, even if it did come from a sweaty man in a poorly fitting suit. Hat nearly swore out loud; it could be almost anywhere in the city by now. He would never find it tonight, even if he did remember all those he had seen.
It was enough of an opportunity for Lutanilash, who, in a moment of mindless fear induced bravery, shoved both hands as hard as he could against Hat's chest.
That was when things really started to go badly for Dester Lutanilash.
Shank stroked his chin, the way he had seen the older dockworkers do when they were thinking hard about something, like the movement of an especially heavy load from one of the ships onto the portside. Across from him, set on its scarf as if a relic resting on a plinth was the Orb. He didn't know when he had started referring to it like that, with such emphasis, but he it was probably about when he crossed into the Shallows, when the folk around him began to shift into the characters that populated the mer district.
He had begun to daydream about it, about what it would do for him. He had known he was going to sell it as soon as he had seen it was gold. Not a moment of doubt had flickered though his mind. He would be a rich man, rich enough to buy Vaarya's house and kick her out of the city. And he would kick her, right between her saggy old goat tits. It wasn't just an orb, it was the Orb.
Such musings had plastered a grin across his face even through the tricky climb up onto the roofs that led to his little hideaway. The aquatic architecture of the ichthyican homes and shops gave him plenty of hand holds, but also a multitude of obstacles that could, were he not used to the climb, lead to some pretty fatal accidents.
It was only when he had fully unwrapped the Orb in the safety of his rag-shuttered base and gotten a good look at it, that his mind hand begun to be plagued with uncomfortable thoughts.
First of all, it was big – a lot bigger than his fist, though smaller than his head. All of the fences he knew wouldn't give him anywhere near what that amount of gold was worth. Not because they were cheap skivs, which they were, but because they simply would not be able to get their hands on enough coinage.
That was his first problem; he just had no idea about where he would go to sell the damned thing. There were some pawn shops that wouldn't ask too many questions about where he had found the Orb, but then again, pawners were notoriously tight-fisted, and anyway, would they really be able to afford what the Orb was worth? Shank didn't actually have any idea, but he wasn't sure he wanted to flash the thing around town too much. He had been attacked for a sight less in the past.
The second problem as he saw it was that he wasn't even certain that the thing was made of gold. Sure it had looked like the stuff when he had glimpsed a slice of it through the scarf, but now that he had unwrapped all of it... it wasn't right.
Shank had never handled much gold, it just wasn't a substance that fell into the grubby paws of a dockrat. But he had seen it. When Captain Obessiron had delivered the Prime Minister's golden cog coach, Shank had been watching it unloaded from The Strider. He thought he knew what gold was supposed to look like, and as far as he knew, it wasn't supposed to swim around under the surface like it was still molten.
The Orb was the right colour and felt right for gold, it just didn't look entirely right. Under the cool metallic surface there were ebbs and flows, as if currents were moving just below what the fingers could touch. These movements didn't seem to effect the inscriptions that had been carved into the Orb, no, the currents moved as if they weren't even there.
And the inscriptions! Shank hadn't seen anything like them. There were geometrical shapes and lines and some sort of script that curled around the entire circumference of the sphere, with only a small circle to mark where it began and ended. Shank had seen at least a dozen different languages written down and he couldn't see a single symbol that looked familiar. Or rather, they looked like they might come from half a dozen different scripts at the same time. It presented something of a conundrum to him. The Orb looked valuable to him, like it might be worth a lot of money, but at the same time, he couldn't put a figure on how much money – largely because he had no idea what it was he was trying to sell.
If he kept hold of the thing and tried to find out what it was, how much it was worth, then it became more and more likely that someone would take it off him, but at the same time, the quicker he tried to get rid of it, chances were that someone in the know would rip him off.
Shank picked up the Orb and held it in his hands, slowly rolling it over, letting the dim rosy light of dawn glance off the different inscriptions. The chuffer who had given it to him had looked like a pretty well-off sort, and the rich folk who lived up on Shronte Rise owned all kinds of weird things, what did they call them? Antiques. Shank clenched his jaw and quickly pulled the scarf around the Orb, before stuffing it deep within the dank confines of a sack, pulling the drawstrings tight.
If sweet Silgur was good enough to drop good fortune into his lap, he wasn't going to squander the opportunity by being too hasty.
It wasn't that Shank didn't care about the provenance of his golden egg, it was just that he did not have much sympathy to spare for the problems of anyone who was not Shank. As far as he was concerned, the old man had been a wealthy eccentric who got off on giving away his valuables and he had, for once, been at the right place at the right time. Shank had enough troubles of his own to worry about to spend much time thinking about how he could help others with theirs.
The Silvangylar Galleries were situated at the bottom of the Shronte Rise, squatting like a guardhouse to that bastion of wealth and privilege. Named for the line of kings that had once ruled Beg Torphimel centuries ago, they were marble and colonnade lined halls containing only the most exclusive of boutiques to cater to any need a gentleman and his lady might dream up. Most citizens could only look on with forced disdain as smartly dressed humans in their black coats, stiffly starched collars and eclectically coloured cravats meandered lazily from shop to shop, or women in parasol-shielded packs drifted like rainbow splashed swans. Above them, glass panels in wrought iron frames let the meagre sunlight through, and kept any weather from intruding on their leisure.
Shank scurried through the various Halls, never more aware of his appearance then now. His stained and ragged clothes – the white shirt more of a piss-yellow, his jacket run through with poorly patched holes – and his hair which was growing over long, and in seemingly random directions, cut as it was with a knife a navvy had lent him for the purpose. He clutched his sack all the more tightly, the key to his rise to all this, but no one was paying him any attention at all. In fact, the other shoppers seemed to be actively ignoring his presence. No one looked at him as he hurried past them, and Shank was glad for that, he was not about to doff his cap at someone just because they were born with a silver spoon stuck up their arse. Let them pretend he was invisible, the less attention the better.
He had only been inside the Galleries once before, about a year ago, and so knew where he was going, and he knew that the secret to not being picked up by one of the guards stationed unobtrusively in the wall niches was to not linger. Boys like him had no business in the Galleries unless they had business. Last year, he had been delivering a note from a ship captain to an antiques dealer, but had stood around gaping at the marvels available to the rich. It had taken a lot of fast talking and wheedling for Shank to get his arm back, and even then he had been marched to the door of the shop and out again. So he kept his head down and kept his eyes on the path ahead, towards Juvenud's Hall.
There were fewer people walking about here, and Shank let himself slow down, gaze bouncing from discrete sign to discrete sign, looking for the shop he had been in before. All the shop fronts appeared to be the same, large windows full of an explosion of items from all over the world and periods of history. Most of them were entirely alien to Shank, though some were obvious in their purpose, chairs, tables and the like. He finally found the store he was looking for, Gesherwan's, and took a deep breath, swept his hair back, and pushed the door open.
A bell tinkled above his head as he stepped in, and he watched a small grey-haired man appear out from behind a stack of books, wiping his hands on a kerchief.
'Good morning good sir, welcome to...' the servile expression on his face changed as he looked at Shank, his eyes squinting behind his round spectacles and his mouth twisting into a suspicious frown. Up close he wasn't nearly as old as Shank had first thought, his hair more blonde than gray, and his face a sight smoother than an old man's.
'What do want boy? Quickly now, speak up.' The man said, presumably the Gesherwan.
Shank swallowed nervously – now that he was here, he wasn't sure how good a plan it had been. Gesherwan was already looking over him to see if anyone had noticed the scruffy young man in his shop.
'I'a have sommit I want you to take a look at M. Gesherwan sir.' Shank said, touching his fingers to the tip of his cap.
'Now see here boy, I'm not interested in buying some rubbish you've found in the slums. Now, get a move on before I call the guards, you hear.' Gesherwan waggled his spindly finger under Shank's nose.
Shank retreated a step from the hostile digit and thought fast.
'Ah, you are a'thinking that this is my object? No sir, I am just here on Cap'n Bedlour's word.' Shank sidled closer and patted the sack, trying to smile disarmingly, 'He came in yesterday and wanted the good sir to have a'looks at sommit he found o'way.'
The antiques dealer was still eyeing Shank suspiciously, but there was also a gleam of interest in his eyes. Bedlour had been the trader captain that Shank had made deliveries for before to the Galleries and he knew that the captain had an interest in the kind of knick knacks that Gesherwan sold.
'Yessir, e' wants you to have a look so he can know how much it's worth, so he does.'
Gesherwan tapped a thin finger against his lips, looking over the rim of his spectacles at the sack. Behind him, mountains of exotic and ancient objects towered precariously. A suit of Varaimos Era Beddanic armour was posed menacingly on a wooden frame next to a dark skull lined box that looked to be very firmly locked. He turned from Shank and appeared to study the gilt frame of a full length mirror.
'I was under the impression that no ships were getting into port with the strike. Am I mistaken?'
Though he kept the innocent expression on his face, inside, Shank was livid at Shank.
A sea captain! Black Marrows chuffer! Everyone in the fucking city a' knows no ships are getting in, even this balding skiv.
'Ah, to be sure he did not let me have it by a'boat sir. No no, the message came in a'landwards side, seeing as the good Cap'n cannot sail into the city.' Shank sensed that he that he was starting to pique the man's curiosity, and began to idly to pull on the drawstrings.
'The Cap'n was mighty eager to know what he might have here. He said he never seen the like of it before, thought you were the man to ask. He says to me, 'Shank, take this to Gesherwan's. If anyone knows, it will be that man,' so he did.'
Out of the corner of his eye, Shank could see Gesherwan's chest swell with pride at the compliment, and he smiled to himself. Wealthy people were so easy to play. Since they had money, all you needed to do was feed the other hungers – pride worked a treat on men.
'Well then, let's see it boy. We don't want to keep the Captain waiting. I don't know why you didn't mention him as soon as you walked in.' Gesherwan said, hurrying Shank with his hands and leaning over his shoulder.
Shank pulled the scarf-wrapped Orb from the sack and handed it to Gesherwan, who took it gingerly and scurried over to a desk, where he carefully placed the Orb down, treating it far more carefully than Shank had been, which sent twinges of excitement up his spine, intensifying as the dealer leaned close and began to unwrap the scarf.
Unconsciously, Shank started to rub his hands together. Finally, he was going to find out just how rich he was going to be! Would he try and buy a seat in Parliament? Or just find himself a ship and sail the world?
His daydreams were interrupted by a scoff from Gesherwan. He looked up expectantly, expecting to see excitement or perhaps even the sombre face of a salesman. Instead, there was irritation. Gesherwan was holding up the Orb in one hand and shaking his finger at Shank with the other.
'Now then, what's this? The Captain should know better than to waste my time with things like this!'
Shank didn't know what to say, so he just let his face fall into an expression of complete confusion.
Gesherwan sighed with annoyance, 'All of our clients know that Gesherwan's does not deal with artefacts of a magical nature.'
'Magical nature?' Shank repeated dully.
'Are you dense boy? Mundane metal does not act like this. No, this object is clearly outside of my area of expertise.'
'So you won't buy it?' Shank asked desperately.
Gesherwan looked affronted, 'Sweet Silgur no! Bring in an ensorcelled item into my shop? Store it around these priceless antiquities? Anything could happen! Perhaps it is bomb or munition of some kind? Yes indeed, I have heard talk that Quer manufactures such devices.' He stuffed the Orb back into Shank's sack, 'Go on boy, take it out of here, quickly now!'
He began to bundle Shank off towards his door, though he was careful not to touch too much of the boy's dirty jacket with his hands.
'But, what about the Cap'n?' Shank said, still hoping for at least a value to put to the Orb.
'He'll have to go somewhere else, but he should know better than to bring those kinds of things here. Maybe someone on Bashford Avenue will be more help to him.'
The bell tinkled merrily as Shank was bustled out of Gesherwan's.
Shank was in a sullen mood as he made his way to Bashford Avenue, the dream much deflated. Of course the Orb was magic, why else would someone just give it away? No doubt it was some hex-riddled device meant to exact some revenge and Shank had just been the latest chuffer to fall for its fool's gold charms. It was almost enough to make him drop the sack then and there in the gutter and head home. Except that he didn't really have a home anymore.
Besides that, it wasn't costing him anything to find out, was it? Maybe one of the squints down on the Avenue would be interested in something like the Orb, give him enough to get a room somewhere, maybe a couple of weeks of hot food.
He still glared at anyone who dared to get in his way, gentleman or not, and walked with a frown plastered across his face. Not only had he found out that his golden orb was likely a thaumaturge's trinket, but also that he would have to go talk to one.
For people of Shank's class, their access to magic and its practitioners was limited to the small helpful formulas and hexes peddled by the hard-up students of the University and the stories that they told each other over pints of beer or perhaps the occasional golem rumble. They were essentially mysterious beings, dealing with powers that could only be half-understood and turn a man inside out if properly applied. There were whispered tales of the singineers, hubristic fools who consorted with malicious and powerful devils, and who sacrificed any children they could catch to their blistering masters. And of course everyone had seen the victims of the government punishment labs, the dead-eyed men and women who sprouted extra limbs or, even worse, alien biologies grafted onto them – the Sculptors' "art". He was understandably wary of walking into the den of one of them. Shank was not really very religious, but did remember that Silgur was supposed to have fended off evil sorcerers when she had walked the earth. He tried to remember the words to her prayer, just in case.
As it turned out, the first building he had worked up the courage to knock on was home to the thaumaturge Gellin Casseotipash, a middle-aged man with a bright smile and a face so utterly ordinary that Shank had almost giggled with relief. As Shank had walked into the house-cum-laboratory, Gellin had been wrestling with an auto that was apparently trying to clean up the very research the scientist had been working on. Some vicious smacking with a conveniently placed wrench and the malfunctioning robot had finally settled down, its gears whining.
'I don't know why I bought the darned thing,' Gellin said, after pulling off his goggles and offering Shank a cup of tea. After looking around the mess that was the thaumaturge's lab, Shank declined politely, and the two men sat on the only two clear surfaces available – one being an out of place lavender armchair, the other an up turned crate.
'Without the hiver to make sure nothing off-circuit gets into its head, it always breaks down.' He continued shaking his head softly. Behind him, all sorts of machinery that Shank had never seen before worked, or sat menacingly silently, their dials dark. Gellin followed his gaze and grinned. 'Oh don't worry Shank, it's not all mine. The University has been very generous in supplying equipment to help with my research.'
Shank couldn't help but ask, 'but what is it you are a'researchin'?'
Gellin laughed and clapped his hands together, sweeping off his chair and quickly moving over to his lab table, sliding various mechanisms and papers away, mumbling under his breath until he found what he was looking for, a wire framed...thing with what looked to Shank like a small silvery bowl attached to it. Gellin brandished it at Shank triumphantly.
Shank looked back at him blankly.
The scientist caught the look and hurried back over to his crate, 'Alright Shank, you know how specially trained and gifted thaumaturges can channel their powers to create links between their mind and the mind of a selected person some distance away?' Gellin looked at him expectantly.
Shank nodded slowly. He had never used a 'pathist himself but he had heard of some country lads going to a lady in the Humbles who would communicate with their families back home for a pretty hefty fee.
'Well, that all works because the mind space is different from the physical space, and that's fairly well understood by scientists. But what I am interested in doing is threefold.' Gellin began counting off his fingers, 'One; to create a more stable connection between communicators. Two; to increase the range of even the weakest of practitioners. And thirdly and most ambitiously; to allow untrained, non-gifted customers to communicate together, without the need for a telepathist at all.' He held up the thing, 'Thus, I give you the mindscope!'
Gellin had the decency to look slightly embarrassed, 'It's a working name for the helmet.'
Having been told that the device was a helmet, Shank could begin to see how it might fit, the wire frame sitting over the ears, with the bowl's bottom resting against a point just off the crown of the head.
'So, does it work like you said?' Shank asked, waggling three of his fingers. He knew he should be asking about the Orb, but he couldn't help himself. Gellin's excitement about his work was infectious and Shank found he actually enjoyed listening to him.
The thaumaturge gave a sheepish little chuckle, 'It's still early days my friend, but I've been making progress! With the mindscope I can project my thoughts to minds significantly further away than without, and not only that, but the strain on me is much less. I haven't quite gotten round to testing on the untrained, but I'm sure such applications are just around the corner.' He smiled to Shank, 'Goodness, here's me wittering on about my work and you've come here for something important no doubt.' He carefully set his invention back onto the table, giving the auto a wary glance before coming back to Shank.
'What can I help you with Shank?'
Shank sucked on his lower lip for a moment before nodding to himself, pulling his sack onto his lap, talking as he started to undo the drawstrings, 'This is how it is see. I have come into a'possession of a thing yeah? But I am really not knowing what this thing be. A skiv told me it might be magical, so here I am, a'hoping you can have a look at it.' He held up the gleaming orb towards Gellin in both hands.
The scientist didn't take it for a moment, merely leaning forward and tilting his head from side to side, one eyebrow slowly sliding up his forehead.
'My my my, what have we here,' Gellin muttered, taking the Orb with just his fingers, rotating it in front of his eyes, following the incised lines and then the text.
'Yes indeed Shank,' Gellin said, 'the way this metal moves beneath the surface would suggest that there has been at least some aspect of puissance expended in its manufacture. I don't recognise the script though, where did you come across it?'
Shank shrugged, 'From a man in the street, so I did.'
Gellin gave him a hard stare before shrugging himself, 'A man in the street it is then. I don't suppose you would mind me taking a look at it with some of my instruments would you?' Gellin waved towards the machinery and equipment piled against the wall.
Shank nodded, 'I just want to know what it is M. Casseotipash.'
Holding the Orb with one hand, Gellin waggled his eyebrows enthusiastically and strode over to a machine which trailed naked wires. Mumbling to himself, Gellin began to flip switches and turn dials, before lowering his goggles back over his eyes and reaching for one set of wires, which he hurriedly began to wrap around a metal screw that poked out from the side of his goggles. Shank edged closer to watch as the thaumaturge started narrating what he was doing.
'Now don't worry Shank, what I'm doing here shouldn't damage this thing at all. As you probably know, the students of the metasciences are must train their mind to be sensitive to its effects yes?' Shank did not know that, nor really what Gellin was talking about, but nodded anyway.
'It's fairly rigorous mental exercise but it allows us to sense when someone is channelling and gives us some idea of the effects. However,' and Gellin started fiddling with the lens of his goggles, seemingly staring at nothing, 'I'm not sensing anything from your Orb, which would suggest that either it is not magic, or that I cannot sense it. Hence the use of this Dessingralph Machine, which is far more sensitive to magic, and should allow me to visually see any traces if indeed the Orb is a thaumatic construction.'
He turned back to face Shank, a wild grin on his face, his eyes behind the goggles appearing to spark with vivid purple arcs of light. 'Get all that?'
Shank chuckled and shook his head, 'Not a word.'
With a snort of laughter, Gellin turned back to the Orb and began casting under his breath, slowly turning it in his hands until he had stared at every inch of its surface. Finally, silently, he leaned back, and with a frown on his face, pulled the goggles from his eyes and set them on top of the Dessingralph Machine. Shank looked expectantly at him, palms upraised.
The thaumaturge wandered back to his box and sat down on it, still rolling the Orb in his hands absent-mindedly.
'Well?' Shank asked finally.
Gellin shook his head, 'It's very odd, but I couldn't see even the smallest trace of magic anywhere on it –and there should have been. Metal just doesn't move in that way. I must say Shank, I am perplexed.'
Shank sighed and rubbed his eyes, and Gellin looked up at him. 'I'm sorry I can't be much help to you chap, but to be honest, this isn't really my field of expertise-'
Shank cut in, 'I seem to be a'hearing that a lot today.'
Gellin handed back the Orb and spread his hands apologetically, 'If you want I could probably recommend some good material thaumaturges from the University, but really, I'm not sure they would be much help to you either.'
Of course they wouldn't, Shank thought to himself, of course Shank gets landed with the one thing in the entire city no one wants to pay some Marrows-damned money for.
He dropped the Orb back into his sack, and got to his feet, sticking out his hand to shake Gellin, who seemed genuinely distraught by his inability to help.
'Well, thanks for trying M. Casseotipash. It was worth a go,' said Shank, shaking once before turning to the door.
'I'm sorry I couldn't be any more helpful, but if it's worth anything, I would take it to the University, to the ancient history or archaeology departments. It might help to know what the inscription says for one thing, and they have all kind of artefacts there that no one else knows the use for. You might get lucky.'
Shank met his eager puppy-dog gaze and shrugged, pushing open the door and stepping back onto the cobbles of Bashford Avenue, narrowly avoiding getting barrelled over by a horse-drawn carriage going far too fast for the street.
'Oh this a'day just keeps on getting better.'
Torphimel University. Marrows fend.
Shank had sat himself on the plinth of one of the statues of Silgur's deeds that lined the grounds of the Cathedral. This one showed her advising the Ventur Chiefs, but Shank only knew that because it said as much on the plaque below him.
Was it really going to be worth his time? He had just been told by two different sources that the Orb wasn't really worth anything to anyone – did he really need another over-privileged chuffer looking down his nose and lecturing at him. Sure, Gellin had been nice in a weird way, but he was still a graduate of the University which meant he lived off the back of people like Shank. Probably thought he was being charitable by helping out one of the lower classes. Shank narrowed his eyes and built up a good load of phlegm to spit.
Above him, the heavy bells in the Cathedral's twisting spire began to toll and the clockwork-driven horns blew out the hour.
Shank nodded, only 3 past midday, not too late at all. He rested the back of his head against the shin of some supplicating chieftain and closed his eyes, the weight of the Orb pulling on his arm. Did it matter? He had wasted most of the day anyway, why not give it one last chance. If it did turn out to be nothing he could dump the thing on some more gullible fence and hopefully end the day a little richer than he had started it.
He slipped off the plinth and started towards the university, his course only changing when he heard the sweet cries of the pie salesman. As his uncle always said, if you can, never work on an empty stomach.
The house was a nice one to any casual look.
It brooded in the one of the classier areas of Beg Torphimel, White Shades, which, if not quite the unabashed opulence of the Shronte Rise, came a close, more unhurried, second. This particular house, one of the oldest of its kind, was lucky enough to be completely detached, surrounded by a modest garden and of course, a wrought iron fence to keep the uninvited away. It was only when you got closer when the illusion of grandeur began to fall away.
The paint was peeling and cracking in places, and stained with the filth of the city air in others. The garden, which was a sure sign of age-old wealth in a city crammed to the brim with people, was largely unkempt, snarls of weeds sprouting from the hedges and the grass uneven and overgrown around the back.
M. Hat was unmindful of all these things. He had come and gone from this house far too many times to spend time thinking of its flaws. His hat which he loved so much was now pulled low on his brow, casting his features into shadow, hiding his disappointed frown. It was far more difficult for him to move around in daylight than night and he had enough of the concerned looks that he been getting from passersby. Besides, he had been expected back last night.
He pushed open the back gate, which screeched angrily at the intrusion, and locked it behind him, dropping the key back into the pocket of his waistcoat. M. Hat took the steps up to the backdoor in one long-legged leap and pounded his gloved hand onto the faded blue door, which shook in its hinges. A moment or two of waiting, where he pointed his shoes out in front of himself, letting the new silver buckles catch the afternoon sun. Just as he had thought, they looked very smart, and they had just needed a drop or two of polish to bring out the shine.
There was the click and jangle of a key turning in a lock, and the door was pulled open by a sombre faced grey haired man who promptly turned away from M. Hat and returned to the gloom of the house.
'Simonis,' M. Hat said by way of greeting. The rude welcome did not faze him at all, the butler had never been pleasant to him and M. Hat would have been alarmed to get anything other than the cold shoulder from him. He followed the butler though the kitchen and into a cosy drawing room, the large windows letting in streams of warm sunlight. In the centre of the room, flanked by a small table which held an ashtray and a tumbler filled with some amber liquid, was a large, well upholstered green armchair, its high back towards Hat and Simonis.
M. Hat quietly swept his wide-brimmed hat from his head before approaching, holding it in two hands in front of his waist, like a guilty school boy. A hand reached out from within the chair to tap some ash into its tray.
'So? Do not keep me in suspense M. Bar- oh, what are you calling yourself this week?' the voice in the chair said.
'M. Hat, High Watcher,' Hat replied as he circled in front of the armchair.
Surus Avindonos looked back at him with bleary eyes. Clearly the High Watcher had been waiting up all night, and it meant that his normally immaculate appearance was tarnished, a dark shadow on his normally clean-shaven cheeks and purple circles under his rich brown eyes.
'Ah, and I see you do not have it. Dester managed to escape then?'
Hat shook his head, 'No, but he had given it away before I caught up to him. Eventually he told me it was to some boy.'
Hat shrugged, tongue running over his teeth under his lips.
Surus sighed loudly and stood abruptly from the chair, wobbling slightly and holding one hand up to his temple as Hat steadied him.
'So in short Hat, we are no longer in possession of the Seed, and it could well be anywhere in the city, in the hands of some "boy"? Have I encompassed the situation as you understand it?'
The taller man grimaced and nodded, 'Yes sir, my upmost apologies High Watcher.'
Surus dismissed the apology with a wave as he approached the window, leaning on its sill heavily, almost knocking over the antique mantle clock that had sat there for decades.
'Ease your mind Hat, these are difficult times for all of us. We are used to desertions, but defections are an altogether different matter. Who would have suspected Dester's intentions?' He sighed once more, the noise tinged with the harmonics of hurt. 'We must focus on retrieving the Seed as soon as possible, and to do so, we must needs think rationally to determine the most effective course of action.' He straightened, hands clasped behind his back and M. Hat began to see the High Watcher that he admired showing through the guise of the tired dark haired man.
'We must assume that Dester was telling the truth in his final hours. Thus, what does the Seed represent to a boy who knows nothing of it?' Surus looked off into space, his sensuous lips pursed, 'A prize to hoard? Perhaps. An opportunity? Far more likely. Who would turn up the chance to pocket some coin? Not a boy, and certainly not his hard-working parents. No sentiment ties them to the Seed, no, only the prospect of gain.' Hat nodded along to the High Watcher's words.
'Thus, we know what we must do!' Surus turned to look at the other two men in the room with triumph in his eyes. They waited expectantly for him to continue. After an awkward silence, he rolled his eyes and massaged his temples.
'We must go to the places where someone would try to offload such an unusual item; the pawn shops, the antiques dealers, the curiosity emporiums. Simonis and I should begin questioning them immediately.'
Hat gaped openly, 'But sir, there must be hundreds of such establishments in the city!'
He got a smile in reply, 'Don't worry Hat. I know your talents do not really run to interacting with the general public. But you will be busy, never fear. Someone has to interview the various nefarious purveyors of the black-market, and I feel your skills will be far more suited to it than ours.'
'Simonis! My coat, cane, my hat! Come we must not waste any time. I have never felt more strongly that our long vigil is drawing to a close.'
Everyone in the city knew about the University. It was entirely impossible to miss crouched astride the turgid dark waters of the river Tumber, Goryon's Arch connecting the two halves of the hallowed institution together. Over the centuries, the University had grown to stretch further than the land that had been set aside to it, and departments appeared all over the two sides of the city, the discrete brass plaques with names such as Department of Experimental Metaphysics both repelling and attracting the curious. However, most of the important academics and the larger, grander buildings lived within the high red brick walls of the University proper, the spires and domes dominating the skyline. People of all races and species travelled from thousands of miles away to consult and study with the experts who researched and taught there, or to gain access to perhaps the greatest library in all the world.
Shank loitered across the plaza that lay before the main entrance to the University, the porters' lodge, where iron wrought gates and smartly dressed porters oversaw the various people coming and going. He had never had anything more than a passing interest in the University, convinced that anyone who spent their time with their face in a book probably knew nothing about the real world and was a worse off person for it, but he could clearly see that he was not just going to able to simply walk through the gates.
All the older people who entered seemed to be wearing black robes over their suits that billowed out behind them and carried sheaves of paper or books and all the younger folk, mainly human again, were well-dressed in fine-fitting suits, their ties perhaps a bit more loosely tied than their elders, but nonetheless, Shank was clearly not going to pass as a student.
Across the plaza, which was broken up by two large fountains; Wisdom and Knowledge, Shank saw one of the porters looking at him, and he quickly pushed himself off the wall he had been leaning against and marched towards the gates. Confidence is the key, he thought to himself, just act like you belong and people will believe you do.
Looking straight ahead, ignoring the frown on the porter's face, Shank aimed himself at the gate and accelerated. He was just about to walk through it when a meaty hand caught his elbow and he was spun around to look into at the red, bulbous nose of the porter.
'Not so fast m'boy, where do you think are off to?'
Shank decided to try angry, and pulled his arm away, but the uniformed guard had him too tightly, 'Let go o'me! I am in somethin' of a hurry y'know!' he said, glaring furiously at the porter, who looked back completely unimpressed.
'Don't be smart with me lad. I saw you waiting across there. Waiting for your chance to sneak in eh? Cause some trouble for the sirs? Not while I'm here.' The porter swung him around and pushed him back the way he had come. 'Now go on, get out of here you little urchin.'
'The reason,' Shank said, taking a moment to straighten his coat and place his cap flat on his head, 'The reason I was a'waiting back there was that I could see that I would be having a'trouble getting in here.' He shrugged and turned away from the gate, 'But if you to make the professor wait even longer, that not be my business, not a jot.'
The porter stepped forward, small eyes crinkled with worry, 'Hey hold up there lad. What are you saying about a professor?'
Shank faced him and held himself back for a moment, before appearing to change his mind and have a conspiratorial look around before leaning in close and opening his sack. 'A professor gave me a knuckle to go and bring a'back a thing from his home which he did forget. Tol' me to be all quiet about it, so he did.' He let the Orb catch the light and watched as the porter began to fiddle with his fingers. Obviously, forgetful academics were something he had dealt with in the past.
'Which professor lad? Let's not waste any more of his time.'
Shank gulped, Gellin hadn't told him any names, 'Ah, see here my friend. The squint didn't give me no name, just said to go to the, the,' he struggled to think, 'department of old things?'
The porter waggled his head from side to side, 'Archeology? Ancien-'
Shank snapped his fingers, 'Archeology! That's be the one!' He grinned merrily as the porter sighed with relief.
'Alright son, you are probably looking for Professor Richamarl, he is always doing things like this.' The porter then began to reel off a series of directions that Shank struggled to keep up with. The University sounded like a maze, filled with numbered staircases and named rooms and corridors. Every second turn seemed to lead to a cloister. Shank wasn't entirely sure he knew what a cloister was, but he remembered as best he could. And with that, the porter pushed him through the gate and told him to hurry.
It took far longer than he had thought it would to find the right room, and Shank wasn't sure that he would be able to find his way out of the labyrinth of staircases and oak panelled corridors. He had been forced to approach the students who seemed to infest the place, rushing to and fro, and had been told false directions more than once. But at last he came to a hall lined with glass-doored cabinets, each one containing a variety of items, all with a small handwritten note detailing their imagined purpose and where they had been discovered. Shank pushed his face close to the glass, close enough so that his breath fogged it and stared at the ancient treasures; piles of verdigris stained coins that were from the ruins of Iteqkar; a jewelled dagger that seemed as new as the day it had been forged in Ancient Qel; endless numbers of treasures and artefacts, all signed by the same hand.
Professor Celis Richamarl.
A name that sounded vaguely familiar to Shank. It was also the name on the plaque on the door in front of him, through which Shank could hear some muffled voices, one doing most of the talking, the other a rumbling baritone. He pressed his ear to the door to try and listen in to the conversation, but the thick oak door absorbed too much of the sound for him to make any sense of it. Deciding that he had already wasted too much time gawping at the curiosities behind him, Shank plucked up his courage, swept his cap from his head and knocked imperiously on the door.
The voices abruptly stopped talking, and there was a moment of silence before a loud, clear, 'Enter.'
Shank gripped the brass gilded handle and let himself in, not sure what to expect.
Size. That was the first impression that Shank received. Not of the room, but of the man in front of him. He was immense, easily towering over seven feet, and with a body to match. No beanpole was this man; his shoulders were as broad as a wagon and his upper arms as thick as Shank's thighs. His glossy black hair had been bound up behind his head in some complicated fashion and one eyebrow had perked up in a questioning look at Shank.
'P-Professor Richamarl?' Shank asked nervously, too stunned to take his eyes off the ochre-skinned giant in front of him.
Who smiled as a pleasant laugh sounded from behind him.
'Yes, M. Van Tai tends to have that affect on people when they meet him for the first time,' Shank craned his neck to see a smaller moustachioed man sitting behind a desk, leaning forward, his head resting on one fist. 'But I am Professor Richamarl.'
Still surreptitiously eyeing up the book-wielding giant, Shank sidestepped him and approached the desk and the smiling bespectacled man.
'So, want can I help with young man?' said Richamarl.
Shank wormed his arm into his sack, 'Well y'see Prof, I've found this thing right, and I've been all over the city a'trying to find out what it is. But no one knows what it is or where it is coming from. So I am thinking that the University has the smartest people in the city, if anyone is knowing, it will be them.'
There was a loud sigh from behind them, and the bass rumble of M. Van Tai speaking, 'Really Celis, do not indulge the boy, we should be going over your speech for the Society.'
But the professor only laughed and waved Shank closer, 'The Marrows take the Society speech Sev, this will only take a moment of our time,' and then to Shank, 'a disclaimer though lad, I am but a humble archaeologist, there will be many things in the world that are outside my purview. Now! Let us see what you have.'
Shank pulled the wrapped up Orb from his sack and placed it on the desk in front of the professor, suddenly realising for the first time that his eyes were an incredibly rich shade of green, like the spring leaves on the trees in Parliament Park. Richamarl wasted no time, cracking his knuckles all at once and then quickly unwrapping the Orb, only slowing down to suck in a breath with a low whistle when it was completely uncovered.
'My oh my, what have you brought us young man?' Richamarl said, staring at the Orb avidly. Shank was about to answer when he noticed that the professor probably wouldn't listen.
'Come over here Sev, what do you make of it?'
'Looks like it could have been made yesterday,' said Sev, now leaning over Richamarl's shoulder.
'We both know that doesn't count for much when it comes to the truly ancient. Don't these geometric patterns remind you of the Mazan wall histories?'
'Mhm, but the script? That is most certainly not Mazan.'
Richamarl nodded, brushing down his moustache with two fingers, 'Indeed not my friend,' He rolled the Orb in his hands, following the single line of text. 'I cannot place it, there seem to be aspects from all over the world, even some Old Ventish here.'
He looked up at Shank, 'Young man- young man? I cannot continue to call you that, downright rude. What's your name son?'
Shank narrowed his eyes, 'Shank, what's it to you?'
The professor laughed warmly, 'Come now, we are all here to exchange knowledge. How can we share ours with you, if you will not share yours with us? Hmm?'
They certainly sounded like they knew what they were talking about. Shank paused, it didn't cost him nothing to be honest, not yet.
'Aiago Germishank Prof.'
'Capital! Fine name Aiago. Was a general you know, under King...' Richamarl turned his gaze to the ceiling and tilted his head, 'Costad Silvangylar if I am not mistaken. Fine name.'
Shank blinked lazily, he had not known that, and he wasn't quite sure how he felt about it.
'So, Aiago my boy, where did you come across this artefact? Might help me and Sev to identify it.'
Shank shrugged, 'You won't be believing me, but a man in the street is the one who gave it to me, true enough.'
Sev snorted and Richamal laughed, 'Quite so, quite so indeed. Well, say no more on that will we-' he stopped mid-flow, his mouth hanging open and he tapped one of his fingers against a line of the script. 'I knew it!'
Suddenly he leapt up from behind his desk and almost sprang towards a set of bookshelves that lined a wall of his study. Mumbling a steady stream of unintelligible phrases he ran his finger across the spines of the books, occasionally picking one up, flipping open the cover and tossing it aside when it failed to satisfy him. At last, he flipped open a book and yelled triumphantly, rapidly flicking through the pages.
'I knew I had seen something like that script before! And here we are,' his eyes began scanning a page of the book.
Meanwhile Sev had tilted his head to look at the cover of the book, frowning as he did. 'Isn't that Dr. Bost's book? I thought you said his theories were unscientific, ridiculous and the wishful thinking of a childish mind?'
Richamarl waved his hand dismissively, 'It is one thing to believe Bost's claims and quite another to behold evidence with one's own eyes.'
It was quite enough for Shank who flopped into one of the study's comfortable looking leather wrapped chairs and said loudly, 'What is a'going on here? Who is this Bost and why are you a'talking about him?'
The two academics shared a mute look and then the professor crossed the room, coming to sit in the chair opposite Shank. He still had the look of excitement in his eyes that made Shank take ten years off his apparent age.
'Dr. Bost is, like myself, a academic concerned with the events and civilisations that preceded our own Ventish-,' Sev Van Tai coughed and Richamarl nodded and corrected himself, 'rather, your and mine modern Ventish culture. In fact, his office is just down this corridor,' Richamarl grinned and continued. 'Against common archaeological consensus however, Bost posits the existence of what he calls the 'Golden Age,' a time when a single culture dominated the world, and when things like magic existed in a purer form, and were capable of far more and greater things than what we can achieve these days with our modern sciences and techniques.
'Now, of course, many cultures have myths that point to a time when the gods or their heroes walked the earth, indeed, one simply has to walk into the Cathedral here in Torphimel to see examples of that. Silgur was thought to have been a real live figure at one point in our history after all.'
Shank nodded along, he might not have spent long amongst the Silgalic priests, but even he knew that she had lived a mortal life before descending to the heavens at the centre of the world.
'However, most archaeologists believe that such myths are just an inflation of each culture's separate growths and falls. The war of the gods simply mundane wars exaggerated into epics and morality tales as the centuries passed, the similarities just common tropes that infiltrate the psyche.'
Shank could clearly see that this was something of a long-chewed bone to Richamarl and discretely pointed at the book, trying to keep on topic.
'Yes, right, the book. Anyway! In his book, Bost claims to have seen an ancient metal tablet inscribed with what he calls the 'ur-language', which is to say, the first language. He goes to show how the languages of the major following civilisations devolved from this one parent tongue linguistically. He offers that this presents strong evidence towards his theory of the Golden Age civilisation.
'Now! One can of course present the counter-evidence of many many different languages that have no linguistic basis in the ur-language. Capriman pictographs for example. But more importantly, Bost cannot present the tablet for independent verification. No one else has seen it!' Richamarl spread his arms incredulously , as if he were hearing the news for the first time.
'Since the rest of Bost's claims, about the converging mythos of cultures, can be explained by other theories, and his language is completely unverifiable, there are few serious scholars who take his talk of the Golden Age seriously. However!' And the professor swept the Orb into his hands, shaking it at Shank, 'What we have here looks like independent verification of the ur-language! Which may mean that we need to take the claims of the tablet, and Dr. Bost, far more seriously.'
Shank was getting more excited, but he worked to keep the emotion off his face. It seemed to him like this professor was really keen on the Orb, like it might be worth a great deal to him. This is what Shank had been waiting all day to hear. Now to encourage him, make him want it all the more.
'So, what did the tablet say Prof?'
Richamarl looked at him blankly and then back to the book on his lap, 'What did it say? What did it say? Sev?'
Sev had been largely silent during the exchange, content it seemed to let Richamarl do all the talking. He grunted in reply to the question.
'No I suppose not. You never really had much time for Bost did you?' Richamarl said, flipping through the pages of Bost's book.
'If I remember correctly, you snatched the book from my hands whenever I tried to read it,' said Sev lazily.
'Ah, here we go. Bost says he could only manage a partial translation of the tablet working backwards from the derivative languages, but describes it as a confirmation of one his so-called 'convergence myths'. Specifically, that the king of the gods, or the first hero, or whatever the cultural labels, lived in a tower at the centre of the world, from which all – and it seems there is some confusion here, Bost blethers about with different words – power, authority, wealth or wisdom flowed.'
Richamarl pointed one finger at the page and another at the Orb, 'Here, these two phrase-words are the same. It appears to refer to the name of the god-king from the translation.' He looked from book to Orb and back again, as if trying to parse out the meaning of the text by will alone.
'Well, didn't you not say that Dr. Bost has his office just a'down the corridor,' Shank asked innocently.
Professor Richamarl stared at him from behind his spectacles, before smiling a one-sided grin.
'Why, Aiago, yes I did.'
Once it had been decided to consult with Dr. Bost down the corridor, thing proceeded to get bogged down in the details. Richamarl was all for bringing the Orb to the ichthyican scholar to look at, but Sev Van Tai and Shank were both against that idea. Sev, because he wanted to protect Richamarl's academic reputation and have the Orb verified before showing it to anyone else, and Shank because he could see that the professor was the kind of person to get swept up and forget that the Orb actually belonged to someone else, most importantly, not him. Shank wanted to keep his eye on the Orb up until someone crossed his palm with coin, after that, he didn't really care what the squints did with it. It was all ancient history after all.
In the end, they decided to copy out the inscription on to a piece of paper, and have Sev bring it to Bost. The big man had insisted, he knew full well that Richamarl would use any excuse to get into a discussion of the minutiae if given the opportunity. The professor wasn't entirely comfortable lying to a colleague, especially one who had suffered the slings and arrows of academic derision for his theories that were beginning to look more and more accurate, but Sev had convinced him that Bost would be vindicated by whomever should make the discovery, once it was found to be genuine.
So the two smaller men waited quietly in Richamarl's office while Sev disappeared to get insight into the mystery of the Orb, the room seeming to enlarge as he left. Shank looked at the other man awkwardly, unsure of what to say, he couldn't think of any common grounds or experiences that they shared. Richamarl for his part looked completely relaxed, sliding off his spectacles and rubbing the lenses with a small handkerchief while smiling at Shank.
The wait dragged on and on, and Shank started fidgeting, picking at a loose thread in his jacket and rolling the Orb around in his hands, while the professor flicked once more through Bost's book, gently stroking his moustache as he read.
Eventually, after Shank began to fear that Sev had been eaten by underghouls or some other horror, he returned, his expression blank apart from the frown that seemed to be the normal lie of his mouth. Richamarl had jumped out of his chair as soon as he heard the latch of his door opening and quickly approached Sev.
'Well, what did he say? What does it say?' said Richamarl.
Sev glanced at him, and didn't say anything until he had found a chair, 'The first thing he told me was to pike off. He was in the bath.' Richamarl winced sympathetically.
It was fairly common knowledge that interrupting one of the land-based mer when they were taking one of their multiple daily baths was likely to throw them into a terrible mood, and Bost had been no exception. Sev had actually had to back away from the portly ichthyican and his nest of needle point teeth until he had stuffed the paper into his scaly hand.
'He was adamant I tell him where I had found the fragment, before doing anything, so I made up something about seeing it scrawled in the margin of one of the libraries copies of Sebetos's Metaphysics.' It had been slightly more difficult than that, but Sev simply shrugged his massive shoulders and handed a slip of paper to Richamarl, who took it eagerly.
Shank carefully put the Orb on Richamarl's desk and stood behind him, keen to finally get some answers. Looking over Richamarl's shoulders he could see that Bost had written his approximate translation underneath the inscription in Ventish in his crabby handwriting. Shank read it to himself as the professor read it out loud slowly.
'Path/follow the heart/centre to the heart/centre of the world/empire *name of the god-king*.'
They looked at each other.
'And what, sweet Silgur, is that a'supposed to mean?' Shank said angrily.
Richamarl gave the scrap of paper a thoughtful look, 'Well Aiago, if we were to assume that your Orb-' he was interrupted as Sev leapt up from his chair and caught the Orb just as it was about to roll off the desk. He carefully placed it back on the flat surface as Richamarl cleared his throat. 'As I was saying, if we assume that your Orb is the first 'heart', which given its shape is not so strange, then perhaps it is a kind of map leading to the centre of the world?'
'A map? But it's got nothing but those lines and writing on it? They don't look like any map I've a'seen?'
Richamarl mussed up his short mousey hair, seemingly unaware of how it looked standing up from his head, while behind him Sev again stopped the Orb from rolling off the desk. The big man picked it up and took it back to his chair, staring at the object with a suspicious look on his normally impassive face.
'My boy, maps can be very different from what you normally picture them as. Perhaps the lines are a kind of star chart to navigate by? Did you think of that? Or a code that must be broken? Presumably the ruler of this empire did not want just anyone coming to his palace to disturb him,' the professor said, standing from his chair.
Sev was now rolling the Orb around on the floor, from one hand to the other, always in the same direction.
'Or perhaps the map is inside the Orb. Or it is unlocked by a certain set of events.' Richamarl was pacing now, while Shank was calculating the possible price he could demand.
'Celis,' Sev said quietly, now standing at one side of the room.
'Not now Sev! I am thinking. Perhaps the Orb is like the Nantuluk key we unearthed last year? You know, needs a thaumatic current to operate?'
'Celis, I think you might want to see this.'
'What is it Sev? What are you doing with the Orb?'
'Would you just stand there? No, left a bit. Yes, right there.' Sev placed the Orb on the carpet between his legs and let it go.
Nothing happened for a moment, and Richamarl gave Sev a disapproving frown and opened his mouth to admonish him when suddenly and silently, the Orb began to roll, slowly at first, and then picking up speed, directly towards Richamarl's shoes.
'What just happened?' Shank asked, coming up to stand beside Richamarl. All he had seen was Sev roll the Orb over to the Professor, and he was frankly not entirely impressed.
Sev ignored him, and motioned at Richamarl, 'Now try and roll it back to me.'
Still not saying anything, Richamarl lowered himself to his knees and with a flick of his wrist, sent the Orb rolling over the carpet back towards Sev.
It was like trying to roll a ball up a hill, immediately the Orb lost speed before coming to a complete halt about halfway between the two men, and then, once again, it rolled towards Richamarl.
Shank was stunned. Gellin had assured him that the Orb had no magic whatsoever, but what he had seen was clearly magical. Neither the professor nor Sev seemed particularly shocked by what they had witnessed however, they just looked thoughtful.
'This isn't you playing silly buggers Sev?' asked Richamarl eventually.
Sev shook his head.
'So the Orb seems to be attracted to me for some reason. Why should that be?'
Sev shook his head again, 'Not you Celis. Just that direction.' He motioned for Richamarl to put the Orb on the floor and stand out of the way, and sure enough the Orb began to roll towards the wall behind them, only stopping when it could go no further.
The excitement that was writ on Richamarl's face was infectious and he sprang about with a vitality that once again made Shank wonder how old he really was. He grabbed the slip of paper with Bost's translation and held it up like it was a credit note for the entire contents of the city's banks.
'Sev you magnificent genius. This is it! We follow the 'heart',' he pointed at the Orb, which Shank went to retrieve protectively, 'and we find the tower at the centre of the world! This will change everything that we believed about history.'
Shank began to tune out the professor's excited wittering. A new plan had begun to form in his mind. A more daring plan that might lead to even greater riches. It would be harder, harder than anything he had ever done before but he had nothing to lose now. He was homeless, without work and without family and he could come away from this endeavour a rich and famous man. But first, to lay some groundwork.
'A'yeah, Professor, if I can be interrupting you. Would this tower place be having a'treasures inside?' he asked.
Richamarl practically exploded in laughter, 'Treasures? Aiago my boy this tower would be the archaeological find of the, the... Sweet Silgur, of all time. I have no doubt that the tower would contain priceless artefacts beyond counting. Goodness, if we look at the various legends now,' Richamarl began waving his hands and counting off his fingers, 'The stories of Silgur and the Black Marrows talk of them meeting in a neutral house governed by a higher power where they dined from plates of gold and diamond cups. The Beddan hero Gilgaokti was tempted with power over all the tribes. Querish legends talk of an ancient city guarded by unstoppable soldiers with ruby eyes. I can't say how true these things are from a historical perspective, but the myths agree that things of great value were collected there.'
That was exactly what Shank had wanted to hear.
Talk soon turned to an expedition to the tower. Richamarl unearthed a map and with some quick compass work aligned it correctly on his desk. Carefully placing the Orb over Beg Torphimel, the three watched it roll toward the interior of the continent, into the dark confines of the Bleacweald forest, north of the river Tumber.
Sev was reluctant to get moving on such short notice, and kept coming up with potential problems and obstacles, like Richamarl's and his obligations to the University, or the dangers of the hostilities between the city and Querish Conclave – but Richamarl was not inclined to listen, and Shank got the distinct impression that this was the nature of the two men's relationship, the professor compelled to do something and Sev Van Tai acting as the voice of caution or restraint. He also got the impression that more often than not, the professor got his way.
He tried to be helpful too, tried to wriggle his way into the plans. Sev, once he had agreed to the expedition was adamant that Shank would not be coming along. But appealing to Richamarl's sense of fair play had one him over. After all, Shank had brought them the Orb in the first place, without which there could be no expedition at all, and no hope of success.
But most of all Shank was surprised, though he tried to hide it. He had expected scholars to timid old men who tried their best to avoid encountering the outside world, but Richamarl was the exact opposite. He seemed to dismiss the pursuits of teaching and lecturing as time wasting and talked knowledgably about the needs of a group that could be trekking over all kinds of terrain. It was hard for Shank to equate the energised and wilful adventurer with the hunched scholar he had seen when he had first entered the room. He tried to remember why the name Celis Richamarl sounded so familiar but it was to no avail and he had to content himself with the knowledge that soon enough he would be on his way to break open the greatest discovery of the modern era, one that would put his name in the history books and make him richer than he had ever dared to dream.
The sun had long descended by the time Richamarl decided that they simply must break for some dinner. He was loathe letting Shank and the Orb out his sight, but there was no chance that Shank was leaving his golden egg with either of them for even a single night, so it was with great reluctance that Richamarl made Shank promise to meet them the next morning at his own house to prepare more fully.
Finally, after getting a new set of directions in order to leave the University, Shank began the long walk back to the Shallows and his hidey-hole where he had started the day. He clutched his sack to his chest, more aware than ever that his destiny depended on its gleaming contents.