The third chapter, introducing Rhenia.
Chapter 3: Wherein Ferrus Frets at Anil Abbey
Wednesday, 23. August, Noon
This country is rapidly declining. One would not believe it from casually looking around, but if you take a closer look, it becomes evident. The civil war in the provinces is intensifying with each year, pirates are preying on our trade and Northwestern Kohnonia has as good as declared its independence. But in Capital City, nobody cares. They sent a few armies, that's it. Of course, that does not solve the problem. One needs to give the provinces a perspective within the empire. Something that would make it more favourable for their mages to join our sides than fight us. However, this needs money and resources and that is the main problem, really. Corruption is rotting this country to its core. No wheel turns without an obolus. Talented individuals who do not have the money to bribe into higher positions are left ineffectually at low ranks although they could make a difference. Apart from that, the empire is filled with ineffectual structures. With the advent of trains and telegraphs - who still needs the Royal Message Brigade with its royal camels and horses? The enemy is quick, well structure. Our army is heavy, slow, our administration too inefficient and lazy.
People have to be motivated to do their best for the country. We don't need Nepotism that grands high positions only to nobles. We need equal chances for everyone. We don't need the nobles' roaring feasts in Capital City. We need a universal law code. And don't need the Shield's so-called advisor who care for nothing but their profit. We need an effective government. This country has to be restructured.
And only the next generation's Shield can become the next king, a noble of the noblest blood. Why not someone capable? Do we really need to be ruled by idiots?
Ferrus liked being a scientist. He liked the way parts finally fitted together and the steam that filled the lab with moisture. He liked the singing of springs, the many gears that suddenly started moving, clicking together under the springs' influence. He liked the feeling of metal under his fingers, how the tiny joints clicked when he turned the screws tighter - but not too tight. He liked to find new ways to construct the machine more efficiently - for the reduction of weight was the aim if you wanted a bird to fly. And nothing reduced weight better than optimising the mechanisms.
He liked to rasp off edges, minimise the touching of two parts to reduce friction so the springs lasted longer. He liked to study the books on motion and the animals - he did not even mind a dissection too much.
He was proud to have been asked by his mentor over a dissection of yet another goose (it had proved rather tasty after they had finished) whether he would not like to stay even after he had become a master himself. He also liked his lab colleague, Rhenia, who was a tad untidy but cheery and full of ideas.
Still, ever since he had returned from his grandmother - ever since Thallia had been taken - he just could not feel the same passion he had felt before.
Steam from one of her experiments was condensing against the brick walls again as he starred through his magnifier at the metal joint he had started to dissemble. It had been so clear in his drawings, but whenever the wing unfolded, it seemed to catch somewhere. The grinding noise was still sending a shiver down his spine, even in memory.
"Is it working?"
Suddenly, Rhenia brushed by, leaned over which made the flame of his oil lamp flicker. The play of light and shadow on brass, the sudden intense radiation that mirrors focussed onto his work and that now danced into his eyes, cost him his entire concentration. The smell of the burning olive oil was suddenly harsh over the heavy odour of smouldering wood that drifted over from Rhenia's small experiment.
Ferrus always asked himself why she was relying on steam, anyway. For smaller machines, he found springs much more useful. But at least, they had solved the problem of soot that two months ago had still sunken down everywhere.
"It's catching somewhere," he replied, brushing the sweat from his face. Summer always turned the labs into baking ovens. "I think it's the bone structure itself... the joint just doesn't run smoothly."
"I've had enough goose for a while. Maybe, you should try looking into the joints again. Maybe, some sand got in. Or you should try another grease... I've found that the cheap one is sometimes contaminated." Rhenia was leaning against the shaky table next to the rivetted steam engine. Some pens that had been lying on the blotchy plan rolled down. "Wanna go for lunch?"
Ferrus blinked, not very pleased by the suggestion although he had felt hunger creeping up on him a few minutes ago already. A spring whose mechanism he had just checked sprang from its bed as he shifted his grip on the tweezers to turn his entire attention to Rhenia.
Rhenia picked the tiny object up from the red bricks of the lab's floor even before it could roll into one of the gaps or - heaven forbid - under one of the shelves. "It's noon already."
"Thanks." Ferrus took the spring back, put a tag around it so he would later know where it belonged to and placed it with the other springs. "Have you asked the others already?" Around noon, his and Rhenia's laboratory were due to go for lunch, anyway, and peace not to be had until that was dealt with.
Rhenia gave half of a shrug. "Sort of. Xenon just popped his head in and asked. They'll be waiting already, I expect."
Ferrus got up, placing his instruments neatly on the table, covered up the metal innards of his goose and made sure with another look at his work that it would not disassemble by itself while he was gone. "I'm coming." He extinguished the flame and turned to wash his hands at the water supply. They had not had a water supply in their labs for years and the installation of it this summer still felt like a luxury. Yet, he had secretly hoped that they would get the gas lines instead of water. Gas light was much better than the sooty olive oil light. But also much more expensive.
At the other end of the room, Rhenia was shutting down last parts of her work as well before she joined him at the door. Ferrus caught half a metal arm lying on her desk before she threw a cotton towel over it and met him at the door.
"My, you look tired again," she commented as she pushed open the door to the dark corridor. The doors to Xenon's and Carbon's lab were closed already. "Aren't things working?"
Ferrus shrugged. "I still haven't heard from my sister." It was difficult even to utter the sentence. He did not like to remember that sunny morning, and yet, everything around him reminded him of it. Thallia had gone by her own biding, still, he could not but feel as if she had been `taken' even though `taken' suggested `abduction'. It did not suggest that Thallia had not looked perturbed. That she had looked so very certain when she had said Colonel Perdew would have her back in no time which would be easier than for him to prove that he was useless at magic. `Taken' did also not include that she had followed willingly or the conversation they had had with Colonel Kohn. Well, maybe, it included when that Kohn had simpered that he had been sent to the villages to take someone. That he would not take a `No'. That, maybe, if Thallia had not agreed, he would have searched their house and found all the weapons their grandmother had hidden for the other villagers in the secret chamber below her bed... Who knew in what kind of trouble that would have gotten Thallia.
Ferrus did not even know who that Kohn Colonel had been.
His grandmother had emphasised that she was sure that they were looking for spouses because there was nothing else a Kohnon would do in their village apart from conducting a raid. Husbands in this case, for the Shield's heir - the Shield's only heir - was a daughter. Which did not explain why that Kohnon had agreed to take Thallia. But his grandmother had to know, Ferrus told himself. She had seen these gatherings twice in her lifetime.
Still, he felt as if he had betrayed his sister. As if he should have gone in her stead. It would have been so easy to prove that he had no magical talent!
"I'm sure everything is all right," Rhenia nodded at him. "I mean, what if that man hasn't lied and they were really looking for talents? Sometimes, the government does that to pacify the provinces."
Ferrus frowned, pushed the curtains aside that led them onto the courtyard. At the fountain, Xenon and Carbon were already waiting, talking to each other. His master Cer was talking to Herbius, a specialist on prostheses and Rhenia's mentor.
"Can't work well if they are abducting people for it, can it? Besides, my grandmother was sure they were looking for spouses."
"Who's looking for a spouse?" Carbon asked, pushing herself away from the fountain that was glittering behind them under the brilliant sun. Shadows were tiny and the summer heat oppressive already. Yet, it was much cooler than it had been in the laboratory.
"Ferrus says the Kohnons came to his village looking for spouses and took his sister," Rhenia explained. Ferrus felt embarrassed. He did not want to make his worries everyone's problem, most of all not their dinner conversation.
Master Herbius and Master Cer turned into their direction, Master Cer smiling. "There you are!"
Ferrus bowed, placing his right fist into his left palm to honour his master. "Good morning, Master. Good morning, Master Herbius."
Rhenia must have seen both before for she only reproduced the bow.
"Doesn't the Shield only have one daughter?" Xenon asked.
Ferrus's master nodded. "He does."
"Maybe, they are looking for new wives for the Shield? I mean, if he only has one daughter?" Carbon suggested.
"His daughter is the new Shield already," Rhenia intervened. "They don't need any more children."
"Maybe, they want to make sure? I mean, I don't know much about his daughter, but she's never been seen anywhere out of Inner Kohnonia, has she?" Xenon scratched his not very well shaved head. Ferrus supposed that he had been out drinking with friends again; he looked rather tired.
"Be reasonable, there's only one Shield per generation," Rhenia sneered. She did not have much patience with slow people.
They turned into the arcades that let toward the centre of the temple. The air was dry and thankfully cool under the roofs, mixed with the slight smell of the temple's multiple steam engines. The terracotta floor of the walkway had been sanded earlier this morning and the columns of the arcade through their shadow onto the even stone. On the plaster of the stone walls, the fresh chips of the morning's cleaning were well visible close to the floor, the sandstone showing below. Ferrus suspected that the plaster was going to be renewed every day now; it was chipping in more place than could be ignored.
"It is a great honour to be chosen a spouse," Master Herbius stated. He was around sixty and the one of them who had been born closest to the Capital City. He had even spent several years of research in Inner Kohnonia. "It's a pity that most people in the provinces don't see it that way. In Inner Kohnonia, a tournament has been held the last time when the Shield was looking for wives. It's one of the most spectacular things I have seen so far. Over a hundred mages had signed up, all metal or even stone mages and I swear, I've never seen so many Priests of Heresy anywhere but there. If the princess is looking for a husband, maybe we should take a field trip to Inner Kohnonia. Maybe, one of you even wants to participate?" He winked at the apprentices.
"I don't think anyone of us is talented enough," Carbon grinned. "I mean, I can do a bit of wind, okay, but is any of you talented?" Her talent for wind was pretty useful when heating up steam engines.
"I could do a bit of sparks when I was a child," Ferrus admitted.
"True?!" Carbon made. "Wow, you never said! How comes you weren't sent to some magical college? And why are we using matches, still?"
"It's not enough for a fire and certainly not for college." And back than, he had certainly not wanted join the army and some magical college. "Besides, I'm glad I didn't go to magical college."
Rhenia nodded. "I can understand that! My parents wanted to send me to magical college somewhere on the Kohnonian continent."
Ferrus blinked, surprised. Rhenia had never mentioned that. "You've always said you can't do magic!"
Rhenia grinned. "Well, I used to be able to do a bit with water, but I really didn't want to go. So, I forgot about it."
"You forgot about it?" Master Cer narrowed his eyes. "Did you stop using it?"
Rhenia shrugged. "Well, at first I pretended, of course. But by now, I've completely unlearned it."
"That's impossible," Xenon said. "Either you have magic or you don't. It doesn't just go away."
"I haven't done magic since I was twelve, too," Ferrus said. "And if I'm carrying an amulet now, it extinguishes."
"Well, then, maybe you can forget some magic, but you can't lose it," Xenon admitted.
Carbon laughed, taking a tray and a spoon before she joined the queue for food. "I wouldn't give up my magic for the world!"
"How comes they took your sister if they were looking for spouses?" Master Cer asked taking a tray, too.
"My grandmother suspected that. They said they were there looking for a talented metal mage," Ferrus replied, trying to get a look at today's food. It did smell good although he certainly was not very hungry. Not with the present ongoing discussion, anyway. Maybe, he should have felt rather relieved that the others were not worried. That Master Herbius had called it an honour someone was collected by Inner Kohnonia. Yet, if it were an honour, would Thallia not have written by now? Or did the post take so very long from Inner Kohnonia? And should she not have been sent back when they were looking for mates for the princess?
"Ah! Well, that makes much more sense then! They sometimes look for talents, to pacify us. It's an honour to be picked, don't worry. Your sister will get an excellent position." Master Herbius relapsed into thinking.
"I know they always said in school we all have to practice magic hard, so, maybe, one day we could join the military or even go to a school in Inner Kohnonia, but in my village, people were very hush-hush about it" Carbon added the last sentence a bit lower, making sure that none of the priests behind them could hear her. Maybe, Ferrus suspected, she had even been told by her parents to be careful with her magic. A lot of his classmates had been told to do so because their parents had not wanted their children to join the army. It had been so easy to act along and hide a talent he had been ashamed of at that time.
"It is an honour," Master Cer nodded and slid a bowel with today's steaming stew onto his tray. It smelled excellently, but several floating pieces of red in the brew warned Ferrus that the cook was doing his best to burn away their senses of taste again. "An acquaintance of mine - an old friend from school - was very talented with wood when we were still boys. He got a scholarship for one of the Inner Kohnonian universities and is now a highly regarded expert at an Inner Kohnonian steel factories. I know most villages in this region don't like it, but that's usually because they'd like to have the mages in the rebellion. And, honestly, the less mages for the rebellion, the better! Your sister can count herself lucky, Ferrus."
Ferrus nodded, almost reassured and decided to take the noodle dish this time.
"Say, who was the guy who came, anyway?" Xenon asked when they sat down around a table.
Ferrus frowned, putting his wooden spoon into his noodle dish. "A Kohn."
"A Kohn?!" Carbon echoed.
Ferrus nodded. "Colonel Sulfur Kohn, he said."
"Sulfur Kohn is one of the Shield's nephews," Rhenia informed, blowing the steam from her stew. "A son of the second brother, if I remember correctly. They say he's stupid and untalented."
"Do you really know everything about the royal family?!" Xenon was bemused. With somebody else, he might have added `girls' to the sentence, but he knew better than to try that with Rhenia.
Rhenia pulled a sour face. "My parents got this entire family tree hanging around and we had to learn all about it at school - didn't you?"
"Well, yeah, `course we did. Can't expect me to remember things like that, though! Long since deleted for useful stuff."
"Yeah, or by too much of alcohol." Carbon smirked under her breath although she sometimes joined Xenon's party.
Ferrus shook his head. "That one didn't seem stupid." Not entirely, anyway. At the beginning, yes, but later?
"There is also an older General Kohn," Rhenia added. "He is a more distant relative and made a name out of himself in a rebellion on the Northern Continent. He's not a Colonel, though."
"There was a Colonel Kohn here a few weeks ago," Prof. Herbius remarked.
Ferrus stopped in eating. "What did he want?!"
"As far as I heard he was looking at files."
"Did you also see him, Master?" Rhenia asked.
"No, I didn't. But I think you can be reassured, Ferrus," he turned back to Ferrus. "If they are sending a nephew of the Shield, and he says they are looking for talents, then that's exactly what they are doing. Highly prestigious tasks like that are often performed by relatives of the Shield. And if they had been looking for spouses, they would have left your sister in peace... and they would have been from the Archives of Heresy. Only they are allowed to look for spouses." Even he lowered his voice when mentioning the Archives of Heresy.
Ferrus nodded, not relieved. Those people had looked like common soldiers and not like any archive priests. But maybe, Master Herbius was right and this was the one in a million chance for Thallia to be educated at an Inner Kohnonian academy. Colonel Neon Perdew could have helped her to a place in a Middle Kohnonian academy, but Inner Kohnonia, that was were generals were made. But why had a Kohn come here to Anil Abbey? Was that how he had discovered about their family? Ferrus's file would certainly mention that, while he himself had not talent, he came from a family full of metal and wood mages. Ferrus took another spoon of the stew, not really tasting it. The conversation around him had moved on to what else highly profiled tasks included and were just about to glide over into the topic of materials that optimised the connection between organic nerve cells and metal conductors.
Maybe, Thallia had just not had the time, yet, to write. He almost hoped that they would keep her. Perhaps, she was really very talented in metal. If not, they would have sent her back weeks ago. The Kohnons never kept anyone for no reason. He was sure. The Kohnons treated everyone fairly, whatever rumours in the village said. The Kohnon judges were not known to be unfair, the governours did not suppress their provinces, the Kohnon police kept peace and the military was not known for brutality and crimes. Indeed, it was well regarded within the empire. The Kohnons were not the evil, bad, bad people from his mother's good night tales. It had taken so long to overcome those prejudices and truly trust his teacher and even now, his first reaction was to mistrust the Kohnons. But the Kohnons had given him so many chances and, despite his birth and lack of talent, had never treated him illy. Much on the opposite. That the war against them was nonsense and brought nothing but unhappiness, death and pain, his grandparents were right about that.
He swallowed his noodles. Thallia would write and she would write one of her positive letters again, full of awe about yet another instructor. Like Colonel Neon Perdew... he could write to Colonel Neon Perdew. Certainly, he had to know where Thallia was.
Thank you very much for reading. Next Chapter: Wherein Thallia receives an offer she cannot refuse.
I hope I'll be able to upload next week.
Please review. I'd very much like to know what you think so far.