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“Time weighs heavily,
arbiter of progression;
Lord Julius Severin
Official Poet to the Court of His Majesty Henry Sixth
Sunday, 27th March, 650 GR
Thomas Richter reined in his mount upon the brow of Sentinel Hill; a silhouette against the blue vault of a midday sky.
Half a league to the North, the Fortress of Angles hung high above the Weald, casting its shadow across the dense forest that lay beneath. He paused there for a moment, musing on the sorceries that kept the massive edifice aloft, its only earthly tie an attenuated rock bridge reaching out from the steep side of the Hill. His horse, bored by such inactivity, pawed at the stony ground with its heavy foreclaws, snapped sharp teeth at intrusive insects. Richter patted its mottled withers then spurred it forward.
In the topmost room of the tallest tower the Toymaker looked out at the world through a bumblebee’s eyes.
‘Quite so,’ the faintest of aged whispers. A soft, pale hand reached to push a button. Deep within the Fortress mechanisms were activated; clockwork servants blinked their eyes and flexed their joints.
Its steel-shod talons drawing sparks from the flagstones, Richter guided his mount through the Fortress’s barbican and into a square courtyard open to the cloudless sky. Skeletal servitors, trailing the tick-tock rhythm of their inner workings, clattered forward to take the reins as he dismounted, then to lead the mildly protesting horse to an empty stable stall.
From a kennel near the stable block an ermine-hued hoarhound emerged, warily flicked its forked tongue and beat its tail stiffly from side to side. Richter brushed aside his travelling cape, put a hand to the wheellock holstered at his belt, but the hound came no closer. For all his martial confidence Richter had serious doubts his pistol could broach the creature’s shaggy hide even at such a close range; or his grey leather cuir-bouilli armour withstand the creature’s fangs should it bite. He’d seen one of the damnable dogs tear through brigandine as if it were linen.
Another bronze skeleton awaited him by a pair of huge, iron-bound doors. Unlacing the leather snapsack from his shoulder, Richter followed this softly whirring guide. The heavy doors parted noiselessly at their approach.
Moonday, 18th October, 652 GR
‘Confession? Confession implies guilt. My every action was under the authority of others, so if guilt accrues, it’s surely theirs not mine.’
He raises a pewter goblet, stares thoughtfully into the depths of the ruby-red wine within. The late hour has emptied the tavern of all but the hardiest souls and the drunk.
‘I have used stiletto, matchlock or bomb; whichever was most appropriate to the situation at hand. My preference is the blade; I know my own strength and capabilities. Death is instant.’ he snaps the fingers of his free hand in illustration. ‘Pistols, rifles, they’re less accurate; there is potential for suffering. Whatever the indiscretion or failing of the victim there is no need for them to suffer unduly. Unless suffering was a stated requirement of the contract!’ A smile touches the mouth, not reaching the eyes.
‘I dislike bombs, however ingenious the device; too impersonal. Useful tools, nothing more. Likewise any of the numerous poisons experience has made available.’ A sip of wine.
Phosphorescent lamps and circular, low-set stained-glass windows feebly illuminated the interior of the keep’s Great Hall. Its walls rose into ever-increasing gloom, the darkness absolute where the pointed arches came together like the ribcage of a crouching giant. The Toymaker sat at ease upon his clockwork throne, sharp chin propped upon a long-fingered fist. His pose was languid, but the gaze of his dark eyes was intense and followed every gesture and movement of his visitor. Scattered about the Hall many sizes of artificial birds perched upon convenient ledges, singing their soft songs. One would occasionally speed its way to another vantage point with a thrumming of cloth wings.
Thomas Richter drew a deep bow and spoke.
‘Most noble Sir, I approach you as Messenger of his Most Splendid Majesty, Henry Sixth, King of the Known World, Ruler of the Moon and Stars, Protector of...’
‘Do get on with it! My time is precious.’ Though the Toymaker spoke quietly his tone silenced Richter. Well used to the arrogance of power, whether inferred or actual, Richter swiftly regained his stride.
‘His Majesty has always valued both your knowledge and skills and merely seeks to invite you to Court, where such abilities can be better nurtured and rewarded.’ And observed! This last a thought only.
The Toymaker snorted contemptuously. The Messenger sighed inwardly and continued.
‘As an expression of His Majesty’s fondness, I am charged with the delivery of His invitation and a gift hopefully worthy of your consideration.’
From his snapsack, Richter produced a golden egg, a little smaller than a cannonball, but lighter than a soldiers’ helmet. Ornate filigree patterns ran around the ovoid and protruded from the wider end to form three delicate feet. Under hooded brows Thomas watched the Toymaker’s eyes come alight; just as predicted. He placed the egg upon a lacquered side table and pressed down gently on the apex. With a click the egg split into five petals that folded gracefully down, their parting revealed a cluster of many-coloured metal spheres and copper wires fine as spider-silk. As the contrivance continued its play, the wires slowly unwound and lifted the spheres into pre-ordained positions, where they began to revolve at differing velocities. The whole began to turn slowly within its base. The Toymaker clapped his hands in obvious joy and rushed over from his seat.
‘An orrery! Depicting all the worlds! Most marvellous!’ Thick-lensed eyeglasses appeared from within voluminous robes and were perched on a thin, straight nose. Thus equipped the Toymaker began following the tracings of land and sea on each of the larger spheres and the abstract curlicues upon their minute satellites. He shuffled about the table peering down intently.
‘I was born and brought up on a farm out in the Weald; among pigs and sheep. My father slaughtered the meat himself and took it to market. Once strong enough I assisted. I was content on the farm. Happy in the outdoors; with own company.’ Another sip. Somewhere within the drinking house a timepiece announces the passage of another hour. Now only the drunk remain; a silent audience.
‘I can tolerate, but dislike cities.’ He shakes his head. ‘People get lost in cities, both physically and spiritually.’ Abruptly he drains the goblet, places it delicately, precisely, on the worn table surface.
‘I’d seen little of the world until war came again and, like others from the villages, I was conscripted to carry arms against the Junker Lords. Then I was privileged to walk behind Henry’s banner and see what warfare meant to the average peasant farmer. And those without the status to fight their battles only upon maps.’ A pause as thoughts surface from memories gone translucent from disuse. ‘We marched and fought from Wexford in the Aquitane Hills to the borders of Werault. We littered our path with bones.’
‘His Majesty will be most pleased by your reception of His humble gift.’ But not the least bit surprised! Thomas Richter put on his most winning smile. ‘It was found by privateers acting under the auspices of the Great Library, during an expedition to the ruins of Aelfhome. The aelf were ever clever in such things.’
The Toymaker nodded absently as he studied his gift.
‘Unfortunately,’ continued Richter, ‘even the Court’s most illustrious Artificers could not fully repair such a delicate piece as this.’
The Toymaker’s head snapped round. ‘What’s wrong with my orerry?’
Richter raised a conciliatory hand. ‘The musical box will not play. His Majesty felt sure that such a minor problem could easily be solved by an Engineer of your calibre, and hopes that you will not take this as a slight directed against so valuable an ally!’
The Toymaker’s expression became instantly guarded. ‘I am no one’s ally. Keep your damn-fool wars to yourselves and leave me in peace. I wish for nothing but to continue my work undisturbed.’
Once again Thomas Richter adopted his most humble and apologetic tone. ‘His Majesty merely seeks your assurance that you are paying no consideration to the recent advances made by those foul Arcadian ambassadors. They seek to destabilise the Kingdom and promote anarchy, whereas His Majesty wishes to usher in an era of peace and prosperity; to make an end to the bloody conflicts that have plagued the Three Worlds for so long.’
The Toymaker fixed Richter with a glare. ‘Henry is an utter fool. He declares himself Ruler of three realms when he lacks control even over one! I can neither be bought nor threatened. Go, and take your trinket with you! If I wish to talk to Arcadians, I shall. Their words may be pretty, but they’re just as vacuous. You, however, have no monopoly on ancient objects.’ He gave a dismissive wave.
Richter gave ground gracefully. ‘I shall convey your sentiments to His Majesty; who I’m sure will be saddened by your decision.’ You senile withered idiot! He retrieved the orrery, stopping the mechanism and refolding the petals; his gloved hands roaming across the smooth surface of the compact machine. ‘However, His Majesty’s gift comes with no conditions. It is yours to do with as you please.’ He placed the egg back on the table.
‘Sir, I bid you a good day and a long and prosperous future.’ With that he turned on his heels and headed for the doors. The bronze servant whirred into life and escorted him back into the brilliance of the courtyard.
‘When the war reached stalemate before the gates of Crome, I had no interest in slogging through fields of mud against war machines. And the navy, whether aerial or marine, always seemed to be little more than odious pomp ending in either burning or drowning.’ He steeples his long fingers; nails clean and neatly trimmed.
‘Graft and an element of luck brought me before the Knight Marshal, before some oaf of a General had chance to waste me upon that battlefield against the Junkers. It seems I already had a reputation as something of a craftsman with a blade. The Knight Marshal gave me a simple commission as a test. The man died; I passed!’ This time humour does reach his eyes; they shine.
Riding through the gatehouse, Richter glanced back toward the quadrangle; the hoarhound stood in the gateway watching him leave. He gave it a wave. Farewell doggy, see you in Hell!
In the Hall the Toymaker took a fine-bladed screwdriver from a pocket and set to removing the three brass screws that held the base to the egg. With care and patience he removed the first screw.
Richter kicked his horse into a fast canter out from under the gatehouse and across the iron-studded drawbridge. A wind had started from the west, piling grey clouds one upon another. A promise of rain darkened the sky.
Hairy brows knitted in concentration the Toymaker placed the first fitting on the polished tabletop, began loosening the second.
The horse rejoiced in the gallop; Richter crouched in the saddle and let his mount find its own pace. The green slopes of Sentinel Hill grew steadily nearer.
Turn by turn the third screw extended. One final twist and it dropped into the Toymaker’s callused palm.
His horse had just reached the hillside when an explosion rumbled within the Fortress; Richter reined in hard and glanced back the way he had ridden.
There was no smoke, no flames; indeed no outward sign of damage. But the sound meant no stupid Toymaker either. A treacherous gift to be sure, but then his master wanted no sorcery so powerful in the eager hands of his enemies.
‘I found a calling and travelled the world at Henry’s command. My conscience was tempered by the knowledge of how men of my status usually fare in conflicts caused by our betters. Even after the war ended I consoled myself with the idea that those I touched would otherwise be untroubled by the deaths they so wantonly caused. Lords wave a languid hand and peasants bleed.’ Oil lamps dim as their fuel is depleted; smoky vapours haze the low ceiling.
‘Had my craft not been so secretive my rise could have been meteoric. Even so I enjoyed the fruits of my labours. Fine clothes, exquisite food; the King's patronage kept me well. And even if I did, sometimes, find myself prowling dank alleys in pursuit of some hapless noble who'd upset the Queen, I still considered my soul my own.’
Thomas Richter once again put spurs to his horse’s flanks and turned its head to the south. A lazy bumblebee detached itself from a blade of grass and droned past, many-faceted eyes glinting in the afternoon sun. Darting between the horses’ churning legs it alighted on the girth strap; where it hung for the long journey back to the city.
In the topmost room of the tallest tower in the Fortress of Angles, the Toymaker shut down his servants with the press of another button. The sounds that crowded about him slowed into silence. It was a pity about his golem. It was one of his better efforts and had served him well over the years, keeping his true form safe from prying eyes. Still, like the other broken Toys in the Hall, it could be rebuilt.
He settles lower in the wing-backed chair, crossing booted feet at the ankles.
‘I must suppose that I simply outstayed my welcome. Perhaps the Queen wanted no witnesses to her final treachery. When her soldiers came calling I knew that tale was most certainly over. But I'd never slept anywhere without knowing all the back doors.’
A sadness comes upon his features. ‘For all his faults Henry was a victim at the end. Though the rumours blame me, it wasn’t any poison of mine that struck him down; the Queen had her other shadows.’
He surveys his companion of the moment, an overweight, wheezing merchant from Köln, long since asleep from too much strong wine. A bronze coin spins upon the tabletop, before coming to rest beside an empty pewter goblet.
Temporarily sated for human company the assassin leaves the inn, to venture into yet another dark night.
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|The Dreaming Fire|