Today’s story can be enjoyed on its own, but several elements will be easier to understand if Everything Has a Cost is read first.
“Hivara’s breath,” Evran swore. He thrust his sheets from his body and twisted around in bed so that he could reach the window. He reopened it just so he could slam it back closed again in frustration. Éthau’s heat pervaded the room even in the dark of night, but that wasn’t the only source of Evran’s irritation. Across the way from his room at the inn, the sound of a child crying disturbed the still night air. Again.
Grumbling in annoyance, Evran rolled onto his knees so that he could look out of the window. A thin alleyway separated his room from the home of a family next door. The window directly across from his gaped open, letting potentially cooler air in but allowing the needling sounds of the child to escape and bother Evran.
Evran watched as a pulsing light came into the room. A woman carrying a candle sat down on the edge of the child’s bed. The annoying creature quieted enough that Evran could no longer hear him — for now. This was the third time Evran been awoken by the same child’s whining. He had half a mind to send Sword across the way to shut the boy up. By scaring him, of course.
Instead, Evran got out of bed. He put on his tunic and his armored coat. The enchantment in the metal mesh between the layers of cloth brought him down to a much more agreeable temperature. He made a mental note to make a set of sleeping clothes that provided similar comforts.
Evran slipped his boots on without bothering to don pants. His coat came down just long enough that it wouldn’t be indecent unless he bent over. Even if he did, well, he had charged people for that view, and someone might be getting it for free. He would expect them to thank him. He grabbed Sword from its resting place next to the bed and set it upon his back.
Evran stomped down the stairs on his way out of the inn. If his heavy footfalls happened to wake other patrons, he felt no pity. He had to be awoken from his slumber. They deserved the same. Now he had to find a way to deal with a crying child.
Gleam sat, legs crossed, on the ground just outside of the inn. Beast stood idly by his side. Both golems turned as Evran came down the inn’s front steps. Evran smiled. Their presence out here had netted Evran a nice discount in his rate for the night, since he was able to convince the innkeeper that they would scare off any would-be wrongdoers in the vicinity. The innkeeper himself had been scared enough of Gleam’s faceless visage that he might have given the discount regardless.
“Master?” Gleam asked, keeping his sourceless voice at a lower volume than normal. “Is everything alright? It is uncommon to see you awake at this hour.”
“No, everything is not alright,” Evran snapped. Gleam began to rise, but Evran held out his hand. “No no. I’m just irritable. Some brat has been crying right across from my room. I haven’t slept a wink.”
“Ah,” Gleam said. He couldn’t conceive properly of sleep, since he didn’t require it, but Evran had made sure that Gleam understood how much Evran needed it. “Would you like me to address the issue?”
“No,” Evran said. He waved over his shoulder as he walked away. “I want to deal with this myself.”
Evran eyed the construction of the front of the child’s house with distaste. It was shoddily done. Evran had never built a home, of course, but he knew he could do a better job than this. The door sat crooked in its frame and, at a glance, Evran could see that the bottom of one of the window frames was not level. With a sigh, he pounded on the front door.
The response did not come immediately. Evran attempted to exercise his patience by tapping his foot and checking his fingernails. They were, of course, already immaculate, so that took him little time. He rapped on the door once more, this time using Sword’s hilt. The sound of footsteps approaching down the stairs rewarded his second effort.
The door opened just wide enough for a man to look through it. He had a rough face, lined with worry and dusted with an unshaven beard that would never grow in as well as the beard Evran was capable of growing when it struck his fancy. “Who the shit are you?” the man asked.
“That’s not quite how I’d expect a man to greet his savior,” Evran said. He thought about forcing a smile, but he was too irritated for it to come off as genuine. Instead, he met the man with a cold, hard stare.
“What?” The man narrowed his eyes. “What do you want?”
“I want your child to stop crying,” Evran said. “He has woken me up three times already this night.”
The man sighed. He relaxed just slightly, loosening his grip upon the door. “You can hear him?”
“Of course I can hear him,” Evran replied. He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “His window faces mine directly, and you’ve left it open to the world.”
“It’s a hot night,” the man said defensively. “We need all the breeze we can get. Look, I’m sorry that he woke you up. We’ll try not to let it happen again.”
“Trying is not good enough,” Evran said. “Not when my rest and good humor are at stake.” Evran pushed forward, shoving the door open with a stiff arm. The man stumbled off to the side. Evran entered the home.
“What in Éthau’s name are you doing?” the man demanded. “I’ve a mind to call the guard.”
“Once again,” Evran said. “That’s not how I’d expect you to behave, considering that I’m here to help.” Evran took a quick look around the room. It was poorly, and sparsely, decorated. He could tell that even in the dark of night.
“Get out of my house,” the man said, stepping forward.
Two actions from Evran brought the man to a halt. First, Evran snapped the fingers of his left hand. The crystal cuff of his coat came alight with a yellow-white glow. Second, Evran pulled Sword from his back. When the man had finished blinking at the sudden light, Evran had Sword’s tip at his throat.
“I’m not leaving,” Evran said. “I have come here to accomplish something. Some people don’t like to leave tasks undone. Or done poorly. I am one of those people.” With a slight movement of his wrist, he touched Sword’s granite tip to the man’s collarbone. “You may call me Master Evranelen, Whose Works Astound All Who View Them, Whose Beneficence Knows No Bounds.”
“Ah,” the man said. He had frozen as soon as Sword’s cold blade touched his skin. “Yes, sir. Master. Master Evranelen, Whose… stuff does stuff.”
Evran shrugged, cracking his neck. “Close enough. Take me to the child.”
The man’s eyes remained fixated on Sword. “You’re not…” He swallowed, hard. “I won’t let you…”
Evran raised an eyebrow. The man was clearly terrified. Likely he had never encountered an artificer of such skill, or perhaps, any sort of artificer at all. Nor were the chances high that he had ever been at the tip of a sword. “I applaud your bravery in thinking you have the capacity to allow or disallow me from doing anything,” Evran said. “However, I assure you I have no intention of harming your child. If I’d wanted him dead, I could have sent Sword by himself.”
To indicate his good intentions, Evran allowed Sword to crawl up his arm and onto his back, leaving his hand free. He opened his palm and gestured to the stairs. “After you.”
The man did as he was told. By the light of Evran’s cuff, he led the two of them up the stairs. They needed dusting. Perhaps a good scrub, as well. He wondered what the lady of the house did with her time, if she wasn’t caring properly for the home.
At the top of the stairs, a hallway extended in either direction, lined with doors. The man selected one of them and knocked. “Lyne, there’s someone here to see you. And Gerin.”
Moments later, the door opened. The woman squinted at the light emanating from Evran. “What is this?” she asked.
Another door opened down the hall. Two small children poked their heads out. “Daddy?” the little girl asked.
Evran’s eyes darted between the two. No wonder the woman had a hard time maintaining her home. How many more of the creatures were they hiding behind these doors?
“Shh,” the man said, moving to shoo the two younger children back into their room. “Quiet now. Let’s get back to sleep.”
Evran held out his hand to the woman, Lyne. “Greetings, fair mother. I am Master Evranelen, Servant to the People. I am here to assist you.”
She frowned. “Why did Taf let you in? It’s the middle of the night.”
“I am well aware,” Evran said. “I would be sleeping, but your child has continued to interrupt my rest. I am here to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
The woman shifted, suddenly seeming much taller. Evran found himself much more intimidated by her than by her husband, though of course, that wasn’t saying much. She had a powerful jawline and bosom, and her hair, while unkempt at present, was delightfully dark and glossy. “Tell me what you mean by that, and tread carefully.”
“I only wish to help,” Evran said. He held up his hands, palms outward. “I mean no harm to you or yours, I assure you. As I told your husband, I could have brought it upon you already. Surely you witnessed my companions sitting outside the inn next door.”
The woman’s strong expression faltered, but to her credit, her posture remained strong. “Ah. I have.”
“Wonderful,” Evran said. He stepped forward with purpose. “Now, I must speak to the child.”
Evran gave Lyne no choice but to step aside, lest he run right into her. He walked into the bedroom. The child, whose name the father had spoken but which Evran had already forgotten, sat up in the bed. He was older than Evran expected, given his crying; he had seen Vernoa pass perhaps eight or nine times.
“Hello, young one.” Evran strode up to the bed. He bent forward, bringing himself to eye level with the child. Behind him, he heard the mother give an appreciative gasp. It brought a smile to Evran’s face. He had forgotten that he was wearing no pants. “I’m here to find out why you’ve been crying so much and so loudly.”
The boys eyes were red from his tears. He turned away from Evran, pulling his knees to his chest and burying his face between them. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, his voice muffled.
“Well, you’re going to have to,” Evran said. He grabbed a stool from where it sat beside the bed and pulled it to himself. As he sat he felt a momentary regret that he couldn’t give Lyne more of a show. “I’m here to try to make sure it doesn’t happen anymore.”
The boy did not respond. Instead, Lyne spoke from behind. “His pet died,” she said. “Rilly. A bird. He was eaten by a cat.”
“Well, that is most unfortunate,” Evran said. He grinned, for a plan had already formulated in his mind. “What kind of bird was Rilly?”
“I don’t know the proper name,” Lyne said. “We call them redtrills. They’re just songbirds, though they’re pretty smart, considering. They can learn faces and some commands.”
“Ah,” Evran said, his grin deepening. “Well, that’s excellent.”
“Excellent?” The boy pulled his face from between his knees, revealing a face red with anger and resentment. “How can you sound so happy? Rilly’s gone! I loved him.”
“I’m sure you did,” Evran said. He tried to think of something soothing to say. “And nothing will ever replace him. However, I may have something like a solution for you. It might even be better.”
“Better?” The young boy’s voice was ragged. “Nothing’s better than Rilly!” He punched the bed with his little hand. “Go away. I don’t like you.”
“Gerin, that’s no way to talk to a guest,” Lyne said. She moved past Evran, brushing against him to get to her son. Evran suppressed a giggle. She had ample room to maneuver around him without coming into contact with him. He imagined the touch had been intentional.
Evran stood. “You’re right, Gerin. Perhaps nothing will ever be better than Rilly, but I can try to make you another bird, at least.” It would be better, of course, but if Evran wanted to bring silence to the child, he would need to refrain from stating so out loud.
“Another bird?” Lyne asked. “You’re going to make him a bird?”
“Something like that,” Evran said, winking. “You’ll see when I’m finished.”
Evran left them alone to ponder what he might be doing. He enjoyed leaving people in suspense. It made his actions all the more exciting for them. He wanted Lyne to start thinking about all kinds of exciting actions he might take.
From next to the family’s fireplace, Evran took a piece of wood. He tried to find the one with the least flaws. He wouldn’t be working with quality material, but for his purposes tonight, the firewood would do. Even if the wood was not the best, Evran’s craftsmanship would still far exceed that of anything else the family’s house. Next, he headed outside to where Gleam and Beast still waited for him.
“Gleam,” he said. “I need you to catch me a cat.”
“A cat, Master?” Gleam said, with echoes of curiosity in his voice.
“I suppose it doesn’t have to be a cat,” Evran said. He began fishing through the packs hanging from Beast’s back. “It just seemed poetic. A cat, or a dog, or maybe a collection of rats. Still alive, of course.”
“Wouldn’t Spider be better suited for that, Master?” Gleam asked, though he did stand.
“Yes,” Evran snapped. He tired, sometimes, of Gleam’s incessant questions, and he was already annoyed to be awake. “Spider is not here. He’s at home.”
“I know,” Gleam said.
“Then why did you ask?” Evran demanded, exasperated.
Gleam simply shrugged. “Just one cat, Master?”
“Just one should do,” Evran said. He danced a little bit from foot to foot as he searched for the tools he needed. His foul mood began to dissipate. He hadn’t know this night would give him the chance to make both art and money. “I’m making something fairly small.”
Gleam nodded and walked off into the night. Hopefully he would return with what Evran needed. Evran had no doubts when it came to Gleam’s ability to protect him, but hunting small animals wasn’t exactly the golem’s forte.
Evran found his set of carving tools, his calligraphy set, his soul knife, and a piece of vellum. This wouldn’t be one of his sturdier works, but he needed it to be quick and easy so that he could still try to salvage some of the night’s rest. It already looked like he would be sleeping late tomorrow. What a bother.
Evran climbed up into the howdah on Beast’s back and set to work carving the wood. To save time on the soul document, the golem he was making would have to have joints built into its construction. Golems like Gleam and Beast, which were formed mainly of solid pieces of material that Evran had made to flow like flesh, not only had much more complex enchantments, they required much more invested life energy. With only a cat as the source of the soul and energies, there would be little to spare.
Evran carved the bird’s body, first. Its neck would not articulate, but he made a joint that would allow the head to turn. He didn’t feel like painting the creature, but he did take the time to texture the wood to give it the appearance of feathers. The head came next, with artfully crafted eyes that looked alive despite their lack of color, and a beak that could open and close.
The wings and the legs were most complex. The fine feathers of the wings would require reinforcement in the soul document, which meant Evran would have to be even more efficient in his use of the vital energy. The legs would articulate fully, allowing the tiny claws to grasp onto their perches just like a real bird.
Evran worked quickly and efficiently, with a practiced hand. He made no mistakes. Despite the paper-thin feathers he crafted for the ends of the bird’s wings, he didn’t waste a single sliver of wood. He was just carving a drawer into the bird’s chest for the soul document when Gleam arrived with a very angry cat held in his hands.
“The cat is alive, Master,” Gleam said.
“Yes, thank you, Gleam,” Evran said. “I can see that. And hear it.” He hoped nobody came to assist the animal, or claim it as their own. “Try to keep it quiet, please. I still have to write the soul document.”
Evran popped all the parts of the bird together and set it aside. If it were a construct he hadn’t intended to animate, he would have more work to do to ensure that it held together. However, the cat’s soul and energies would help hold all of its joints together as well as animate them. With the cat’s larger size, there would be excess vital energy to grant the bird capacities that would otherwise be impossible.
Evran laid out the vellum on the small table within his howdah and began to craft the document that would both transfer the cat’s soul to the bird and twist and reform it to fit Evran’s needs. It began with a perfect circle of black ink in the middle of the document, which grew branches as Evran filled the sheet with lines, shapes, and symbols that, to an untrained eye, would be completely inscrutable. He added clauses ensuring that the construct would behave like an actual bird. He made sure it would be able to fly, and sing, and, because of what Lyne had said about Gerin’s bird, he even ensured that the bird golem would be capable of some simple learning.
Finally, he wrote the series of lines and symbols that would drill an astral gyre into the soul, so that it would absorb its own essential energies from the ambient. The bird would still eventually fade away, like a true living creature, but this countermeasure would ensure it would function at least twice as long without requiring anyone to manually replenish it.
When he had finished the document, he pulled the drawer out of the bird’s chest and wrote a glyph directly on the wood there, which would help bind the soul document to the body. He then climbed down, document and body held carefully in his hands. He received his soul knife from one of Beast’s satchels.
“We’re ready,” he proclaimed. He set the bird and the vellum on the relatively flat surface of the inn’s front step. Evran gestured for Gleam to approach. “Hold the cat still.”
With the sharp tip of his soul knife, Evran carved a glyph directly into the flesh of the cat’s chest. The creature screamed and struggled against Gleam’s unyielding grip. With the glyph finished, Evran plunged the knife into the creature’s chest. The flesh resisted like hard-packed earth. Evran pushed with both hands, forcing the knife in. The cat went limp.
Evran wished that some greater fanfare accompanied what he had just accomplished, but no, there was no flash of light or great torrent of energy, as he had imagined when first reading about this process in textbooks. The soul, the spirit, and the essential energies were all invisible to the human eye under most circumstances.
The bird hopped to life moments after the cat passed from it. Evran nodded appreciatively. He carefully folded the bird’s soul document into a tiny square, which he put in the drawer in its chest for safekeeping. He held out a finger for the bird, which hopped on.
“Come, Gleam,” Evran said. “See how amazed these people will be at my talent.”
Evran led Gleam over to the door of the house. He gestured. This time, Gleam knocked, leaving a small dent in the doors wood. Lyne answered the door with Gerin in tow. She held her hands over his chest protectively.
“I’ve finished!” Evran proclaimed. He held the hand on which the animated wooden bird perched, gesturing dramatically with the other. The bird, in response, whistled an excellent imitation of a birdsong.
“Wow,” Gerin said. All hint of sadness had fled from his eyes, replaced by awe.
Lyne looked impressed, of course, but Evran could also detect her fear and suspicion. He could not blame her, with Gleam present. He cut an intimidating figure in the night. “You made this for my son?” she asked.
“I did, in hopes he would allow me to sleep through the rest of the night.” Evran held the bird down closer to Gerin’s eye level. “Do you think you could manage that now?” Gerin nodded. He reached for the bird. Evran pulled it back. “Ah, but wait. There’s still the matter of my payment.”
“Your what?” Lyne pulled Gerin back away from him. “Your payment? You said you were doing this to be kind.”
“I am, of course,” Evran said. “I’m also doing it for me. Does kindness mean I’m exempt from requiring a fee for services rendered?
“Master, did you imply that you were creating this bird as a gift?” Gleam asked.
“Of course not, Gleam,” Evran said. “You know I don’t do anything for free.”
“But you acted like you were just being nice,” Lyne said, having found her words. “You called yourself Servant to the People, or some shit.”
“A service for which I charge is still a service,” Evran said coldly.
“Do I not get to keep the bird?” Gerin asked.
Lyne sighed. “How much are you asking me to pay?”
Evran did a quick conversion in his head. He had been in Empyr so long, he was accustomed to thinking in grams. “Four midmarks,” he said. Of a more affluent family, he would have charged three or four times that amount, even with the poor material.
“You think I can afford that?” she asked. “You’re crazy. You should have told me there was a price beforehand.”
“You should not have implied this was going to be free, Master,” Gleam said. “You should not have set about the task without making that clear first.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Gleam.” Evran glared at the tall golem.
“I am giving it nevertheless,” Gleam said. “Perhaps it is time you did something truly kind.”
“I beg your pardon?” Evran said, unable to believe his ears. “Are you continuing to contradict me?”
“Yes,” Gleam said. He took Evran by the shoulder, jolting Evran’s entire body. He pulled him back from the doorway with ease. He gave him a shake. The bird flew free, fluttering in the air for the first time in its life. “Go to the boy,” Gleam commanded. The bird landed on Gerin’s shoulder. “Obey him.”
“Gleam!” Evran said, gaping. He knew that Gleam had a true spirit of his own. He felt constant pride at that fact, and at what he had accomplished. Still, to see Gleam defying him so thoroughly shook him deeply. The golem almost always obeyed Evran to the letter.
“I am sorry, Master,” Gleam said. “For once, I want to do what I think is right.” Gleam shut the door. He dragged Evran bodily away from the house.
“We are going to have words in the morning, Gleam,” Evran said. He was unable to think of those words now. They would surely come to him soon. “We are going to have words.”
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