A bell tolled.
Ean Tavarin woke.
For a minute he stared at the ceiling as his scattered thoughts locked into place. Faint light leaked in through the curtains and ghosted over the swirl marks in the plaster. Brightness and shadows. Ridges and valleys. A masterwork composed in details unintended by the workers who laid them down. A song of mystery played by the first fingers of dawn.
Ean sat up and threw the comforter off.
“Alright, Ahttah, a new day it is.”
He reached over to his nightstand, switched on a lamp, then grabbed a thick, well read hardcover off it and opened to a bookmark in the middle. He read a short section of poetry, murmuring the words under his breath, then flipped to another bookmark further along and read a much longer section, occasionally whispering a prayer in response to something written there.
When he was finished he snapped the book shut and worked over the day ahead in prayer, offering it up to Kai in a whisper.
That done he swapped the book in his hands for a much thinner, much larger one and flipped through the collection of schematics, sketches and proposals it contained. He stopped on a schematic for a solar-powered water pump, retrieved a graphite pencil from a drawer in the nightstand, and made several notations on it, then flipped to the next page and added some small sketches. By the time he had worked all the way through the thin volume sunlight was visible around the edges of the curtains and the bell on the clocktower had tolled once more.
He snapped the thin volume closed too, returned the pencil, killed the light, and began a hunt for some pants.
He made it out of his room pantsed and shirted ten minutes later, with the thin volume tucked under one arm and a weighty toolbelt over the other. The wide long breakfast table was occupied by one other person when he got there, with a pair of servants rushing around stocking it for the small horde that would soon show up.
Tala Tavarin, a distant cousin, flicked a long, pointy ear at him in greeting but didn’t look up from her plate of eggs and smoked rabbit. He tugged on one of the iridescent green wings furled at her back as he passed her and slapped the book down on her other side.
“Your turn,” he said.
She glanced at the book then went back to her breakfast.
“You know I only do armor and weapons.”
“There’s a new suit for the army in the proposals. Half-steel, half-kren. Also, father wants you to look at the new blast furnace design.”
Tala looked at the book again when Ean mentioned the suit and freed one hand from eating to flip to the relevant section.
Ean smiled and found a plate for himself, stocking it from the heaping bowls at the center of the table. He added a steaming cup of dark green-brown hahx to that and sat down next to Tala. A moment after he started eating, two teen boys came in, looking like a perfect set except for the parts in their tiger-striped hair being on opposite sides. They each grabbed a plate, filled them with precisely mirrored motions, then sat down on either side of Tala and Ean, tiger-tails flicking as they started eating.
“So,” the one to Ean’s right said after a pause. “When’s the wedding?”
“What wedding?” Ean asked while Tala sighed and ignored the proceedings.
“Indeed,” the twin to Tala’s left said. “What wedding. You two have sure been hanging out a lot together lately.”
“It has us wondering,” the one on the right said.
“Just what’s going on,” the left said,
“Between you,” they finished together.
“Nothing’s going on between us…” Ean started but Tala cut him off.
“Don’t feed the twerps.”
“No. They’re pests. Ignore them.”
“She’s already bossing him around, Jo,” the one on the left said.
“I know Jin. It’s really sad,” Jo replied.
Tala finished her breakfast, set her fork down, and put Jin in a headlock. He immediately started turning red under the fine orange hair covering his face. Jo got up and rushed around to help, but Tala unfurled one of her upper wings and smacked him in the face with the spine before he got within two armlengths, then sent him sprawling with a blast of repulsion that knocked over loose chairs on both sides of her.
Ean ate quickly and extricated himself from the table while the twins were still struggling to overcome a woman at least a head shorter than them.
“I’ll get the proposals to Garran when I’m done with them,” Tala called out as he left.
Ean looked back and saw that she still had Jin in a headlock and had gotten Jo pinned face down with one of her knees on his back. Ean shook his head and took the hall leading to the workshops.
As he walked down the long hallway, well lit by the clear-glass incandescent bulbs glowing in the old candle sconces, the wood paneling eventually gave way to smooth-cut dark stone and the growing hum of machinery and rushing water. Suddenly the hallway turned, terminating in a set of double-hinged double doors bracketed by wooden lockers.
Ean got his leather safety jacket and kren-armor helmet out of the locker with his name on it, put them on, then buckled the tool belt on over the jacket and pushed through the doors into the workshops.
The sounds of pounding presses, ringing anvils, blowing fans, screaming grinders, squeaking belts, pumping pumps and chugging engines submerged him. He pulled the ear protectors on his helmet down over his long, pointed ears, blocking much of the noise, but he could still feel the sounds of machinery through the air against his skin and the stone under his feet, and, under it all, the suffusing roar of a great deal of water flowing, falling and crashing somewhere just a little further beyond.
Ean breathed in deep through his nose, relishing the smells of steel, brass, aluminum, charcoal, coke, grease and a million other materials floating on the warm air. After a moment of gratitude for another morning in his favorite place he looked around the twenty or so workstations scattered around the stone floor of machine shop number one, all looking tiny under the arching hahrax-beam roof ten heights overhead. Several of the stations were occupied, even first thing in the morning, and Ean took a tour to see what his families’ craftsmen were working on.
At the first station Lebin NarAndin was putting the grips on a custom longsword that showed the faint wavy pattern of Tavarin steel on the blade. An abundance of etching and decoration indicated that the blade was meant for some noble somewhere, while the sharkskin grip, imported from the Aothani in the Westen Ocean, indicated that whoever the noble was, he wanted a sword he could keep a good grip on in battle. A stack of similar, but plainer, longswords nearby, still waiting for furniture, were probably meant for his men-at-arms.
At station six, Marin Tavarin had one of the Stirlan engines from the blast-furnace chimneys scattered across the bench in front of her in a mess of nuts, tubes, wheels and pistons as she fitted a new displacer into it.
“What happened to the old displacer?” Ean asked.
His great-aunt twisted on her stool to look up at him over her shoulder and moved some of her short gray-shot brown hair back behind one long, pointy ear with a grease-blacked finger.
“The stem cracked. Must have been a defect from when it was forged. Don’t worry, I’ll have the scavenger in blast two back up to peak before lunch.”
Ean nodded and left her to it.
At station eleven, Riln Martillik was putting the final polish on a full load of all-weather brass gate hardware for trade with nearby kingdoms. Ean smiled at the rich glow of the fifty-or-so pieces the gray hair had already finished on his little pneumatic buffing wheel. Riln had been putting the finish on all kinds of hardware since long before Ean had been born, and anything he touched left in perfect working order.
“Looks like you’ve been up for a while, Riln.”
“Yup,” the old man replied without looking away from his buffing. “Don’t got enough time left to sleep in like you young folk.”
Ean chuckled and headed for the next occupied station but was interrupted by a thunder of blue-feathered wings as Guard Commander Oril Tirret dropped down from the catwalk that ran just under the peak of the roof.
“Prince Ean!” he said with a smart salute that just touched his tanned brow under his white helmet, “We got a message in from one of the outer villages an hour ago. A garagran stole a cow from them last night.”
Ean’s day stopped being bright and shiny.
“No one died, your highness…”
Ean stopped him.
“It’s Ean, Oril. We’re in the shop.”
“Ean,” Oril corrected. “No one died. It only took the one cow and then fled.”
The good news registered.
“Thank Kai,” Ean said and Oril nodded. No deaths was a great relief. A garagran could have easily burned the entire village to the ground.
“Any idea how large?”
“The description says it was an elder, but the size of the footprints indicates a young one.”
Not a big one then, and possibly not as experienced. Village folk tended to exaggerate with problem creatures.
“Tell my father what you told me. I’ll get a tracking party organized and head out within the hour. I’ll want Kaim and Trin, and a full squad of Tixeries.”
“I’m certain one of the generals can handle it your Highn… Ean. I can have a message out to General Jobin in a few kellas.”
“The villages will want to see some Tavarin royalty with a Garagran about. I can always send for reinforcements once I get there.”
Oril looked like arguing, but finally gave Ean a nod and a salute. “I’ll have Kaim and your sister found immediately. There should already be a Tixeri squad assembled in the castle barracks.”
“Good. I’ll head straight there.”
The commander turned to go.
The commander stopped and turned back.
“Do tell General Jobin to have his forces ready. If I need them, I’ll need all of them.”
The commander nodded.
Ahttah, please grant that none of my people die from this.