Chapter 16. While the Iron is Hot
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“Do you think I was wrong?” Yeva leaned over toward my couch. “How I treated the lamura?”

The time for secret meetings had passed and we found ourselves in a more public room of Domina’s inner courtyard. Aikerim had taken a place at the main table along with her husband, while my sadaq and I lounged near another, a bit to the side. Tradition required this, and I didn’t care much — I could talk to her alone at any time without wasting time on the official courtesies.

Besides, the food selection was just as plentiful here as it was on the main table. And in equal amounts. The couches looked just as comfortable too.

“Would you have done the same if you knew about her circumstances?” I softly asked back, sampling the nearby treats in the process.

Yeva shook her head, “I wanted her to know her place, but not like that. Yet, at the same time, I don’t feel guilty either.”

“Don’t even try,” Irje scoffed nearby, “Don’t forget who that lamura is — she will milk you for all she can.”

Anaise hummed, “While I agree with her, I find myself surprised at how differently you act today.”

“That is that and this is this.” Irje’s ear flicked in dismissal, “I trust Erf, and I trust him to take care of me. This is why I allow myself to relax when he is around. Fully relax and let myself go, knowing that I will be cared for.”

I stroked the soft locks, “Ignore them, Yeva. They will be at it for some time. What matters is that you have no intention to continue. As long as you don’t lower yourself to their level, I see nothing to worry about. Leave the rest to me — I am her master and you acted through my unspoken permission after all.”

“Is that why you want to take her shackles off? As an apology for the treatment?”

Apart from our discussion on wer magic, I had also brought up Shahin’s physiology as well as her shackles with Aikerim. Apparently, she had chosen a laissez-faire policy about me acting as her master. Domina was aware that lamuras required external heat but decided to wait and observe my reactions. At the same time, she was equally agreeable to me unshackling the snake.

Not like Shahin had any decent options available to her other than to keep serving. The shackles were just a reminder of her status, not a method of true restraint.

Yet these revelations were gnawing at Yeva, it seemed.

“No, that would be akin to screaming at her about how sorry we are. She will be given room and warmth as per her body needs but no more. The point here is to establish expectations and highlight the difference between needs and wants. Her basic needs will be met as long as she makes us aware, but if Shahin wants something more — that will depend on her cooperation.”

“And the shackles?”

“Why, these are my wants,” I chuckled. “I need a wermage to power runes, at least until I have access to tool steel. I don’t want Wrena waiting for this new smith to make enough steel for lathes. I am curious about the runes of the shackles as well.”

I spun the key on my finger, an interesting form of magical engineering. It not only worked as a physical key, but also had incomplete runic shapes that would somehow neutralize the shackles as the unlocking was taking place. “If lamura shows continuous restraint and willingness to work as a wermage, then I see no problem in giving her her magic back. That is, if you are also comfortable with having her around without shackles.”

“We will see,” Yeva sighed, “I don’t want to lie to you, love, and say that I will be fine. But something tells me that this night will change my attitude even more.”

I squeezed her hand but spoke no more, unwilling to talk about nanites in public. Nor did I have the time to — our time together was interrupted by yet another visitor.

The smith had finally arrived. Or I should say we had waited an appropriate amount of time to welcome her into the room.

I carefully observed her while she and Aikerim spent their time with speeches, introductions, and the implications of her new position.

Isra Enoch Haleh was a relative of Tarhunna and showed obvious traits of the Enoch Manor. The only difference between the two minotaurs was that her horns, dressed in steel, were short and pointed forward. Her hair was surprisingly short, however. Apart from the twin black braids, the rest of her white hair barely reached her shoulders. It also couldn’t hide the slightly upturned nose on a freckled face and the large, round eyes that gave her a rather youthful appearance.

I couldn’t see from my position, but I could guess that her legs and tail had white-and-black patterns, similar to her hair. And, just like the Enoch Domina I had seen in the bath, Isra wouldn’t have any trouble nursing a horde of children.

The minotaur lady was also as tall as my cougar.

I instinctively stretched my neck; there will be plenty of looking upward in the future. While I could talk directly into Irje’s breasts and earn nothing but a smirk in return, I couldn’t do the same to Shahin or Isra.

What surprised me the most was that she was a wermage. Her mother didn’t hold a title nor was she the eldest daughter herself, thus making her position among the lowest of her kind. Yet that was the lowest position of a female wermage within a Pillar Manor. Isra was still a part of the top one per cent of the Emanai population. If not even less.

I glanced at Tarhunna Wafiq as he lounged on a minotaur-sized sofa beside Domina. It was obvious that he pulled some strings within his maternal Manor to get Isra here. The question was why. Was he being a generous father that tried to assist his daughter in any way he could? Was it due to Amalric and Shahin?

Anaise had implied that her father didn’t walk away from that without any blame.

Or was he banking on my future achievements to propel his protege among the ranks of Enoch? Isra might be happy if I shared some metallurgical knowledge with her, but she would be equally grateful to him for providing this opportunity. Grateful enough to even do some espionage, perhaps.

Tarhunna noticed my glance and raised his cup. I sighed internally and mirrored the gesture, appearing equally welcome. Yes, Amalric was so much easier to read.

Well, it was too late to grumble. I needed a smith, and he went above and beyond to meet my needs. To decline now would be a major slap to the face. It would also ruin the relations not only with Tarhunna but with Isra and the rest of Enoch Manor.

We, or I should say my entire sadaq, couldn’t have that.

So off I went: greeting, introducing others, and asking questions pertinent to me.

While Isra was obviously deferential to Aikerim and her husband, my treatment was nowhere close. Apart from being a bit stilted, it reminded me of Wrena when I met her for the first time. At least Isra wasn’t as dismissive but I would probably have to thank Domina for that.

Wrena was Aikerim’s relative that followed her to establish this Manor. She was also talking privately between the three of us. Isra, despite being a wermage, was an outsider here.

Nevertheless, I once again felt that subtle disregard for my knowledge. It looked like Tarhunna didn’t tell her much about me, or probably was forbidden to by Aikerim. It wasn’t very obvious — I wasn’t treated as a merk that was inherently stupid, but as a murk that was rather smart, when compared to his own people that is. I was too young in her eyes, a child that knew a few terms, who tried to speak with a real master as an equal.

No surprises here: my knowledge of shaping metal was more about machining rather than smithing. There was a significant divide between them when it came to metal cost and availability. One would carefully use every bit of metal to avoid waste, while the other was fine with using a larger blank to achieve better consistency and precision in final dimensions.

At the same time, this was normal behaviour for a wermage. Isra was older than Anaise and already passed that brief period when her growth was comparable to a murk. The question was whether she would be like Virnan or Aikerim and eventually recognize my knowledge. I guess I would have to name-drop Domina for a while.

I also had Anaise lounging nearby, confirming with her presence that I actually had a reason to be here.

There was good news too. I wasn’t just getting a smith — she was a master of her craft and was swinging the hammer before I was born. Erf, that is. Isra brought plenty of examples of her works too: starting from horseshoes, that she would make for the hoofed wermages, to intricate armours and weapons. Even her elaborate horn caps were made by her hand and worn for this exact occasion.

The lady knew how to dress to impress.

“I served my Manor for fifty years and I never stopped improving in my craft,” Isra Haleh bowed to Aikerim as she presented her with an intricately made kattar. From what I could see, the blade was mechanical and would split open once you squeezed the handle. I wasn’t sure how effective that would be in battle, but it definitely attracted the eyes. “It would be my honour to work under your banners.”

Aikerim picked up the weapon and made it open and close repeatedly like some grotesque scissors. Worst of all she did it while maintaining direct eye contact with me. I palmed my face; she was still resentful for that morning headache.

Irje snickered nearby and began whispering into Yeva’s ear.

“Will you be willing to swear an oath of silence to my Manor? To keep my secrets close to your heart, lest Gods will take your Flow away?”

“An oath!?” floppy ears perked up as she glanced from Domina to her husband, “I…I mean, yes! I would be delighted to!”

Isra didn’t look intimidating before but her surprised look made her appear even softer. Even Wrena looked more rugged and tough. Talk about wermage youthfulness. Aikerim didn’t look thirty despite approaching her second century, while Anaise barely looked like her own twenty. Isra was somewhere in-between. Old enough to be considered an independent adult yet still young and eager to prove her mettle.

Like Amalric, or a younger sister of Shahin.

In the meantime, servants presented to Aikerim an engraved plate with a large symbol of scales. The mark of Kiymetl. It looked like there were some serious binding agreements if you had a Spark. From what I could grasp in the ritualistic proclamations Isra’s blood would link her to the plate, as if some sort of voodoo effigy.

“It would show my mother if she willingly broke the agreement,” Anaise quietly whispered nearby, seeing my confusion, “In that case, it would help locate her as well as pass some curses to announce intent.”

Isra had done some chanting of her own, telling me that you couldn’t just steal someone’s blood and perform this ritual without notice. Although I had no doubts that some people had been ‘coerced’ into similar agreements.

I glanced at Irje with a silent question. Noticing her shake her head, I sighed and resumed watching.

“With this, the deed is done,” Aikerim closed the tablet shut, “I welcome you, young mage, into my Manor. May our lives grow closer through the centuries.”

As the minotaur lady bowed, I glanced at Anaise, “How often does this happen?”

“Occasionally,” She shrugged, “Sometimes it is similar to Wrena and Isra Haleh, where you have free people that you need to make sure won’t betray you. Often enough, the seal is broken once she marries into the Manor proper.”

“Wait,” Irje frowned, “she is single?”

“I do not know; my father didn’t tell me. But she isn’t married to any one of Kiymetl yet.”

“It is starting to get crowded,” Irje grumbled.

“I need a smith, Irje, not a bedwarmer. If I want one with large pillows — I will use you instead. Besides, didn’t you try to ogle Shahin but yesterday?”

“Yeah, but she is different,” My amazon whispered unashamedly, “Mysterious and with a tail instead of legs. Enoch wermages are boring. All they have are the convenient handles near their heads.”

I shook my head. Now that she was satisfied, Irje had started to develop an eye for exotic treats…

“You will assist my Alchemist in his research,” Aikerim loudly proclaimed, pointing out in my direction, “Servants will show your new residence as well as the future place for the smithy. Serve me well by serving him.”

“Ah?” She turned around and looked at me again, “eh? But…”

Well, there was less enthusiasm compared to when she took that oath.

“Would there be a problem?” Domina asked imperiously. I sighed, the mousetrap was closed shut and, as her new Domina, Aikerim had much more power to dictate the terms. Even Tarhunna glanced at his wife with concern for a second.

But he did not intrude.

“No, my Domina. It will be done as you command.”

“Excellent,” Aikerim clapped her hands, “Explore your new accommodations.”

Isra Enoch Haleh

A lump of coal sailed across the warehouse as she bit down on her lip. This wasn’t even a smithy! A warehouse more like: the large room was mostly barren and unused. Piles of coal, limestone and some other rocks marred the otherwise clean and flat stone floor.

“What kind of jest is this?” She yelled at the room, “What am I supposed to do here? Dance?”

“The smooth floor will make it easier to clean and will provide a solid ground for future projects,” another voice made her jolt and turn around.

The murk frowned, “Were you crying?”

Isra wiped her eyes just in case, “I am not! Are you trying to build a forge here or eat off the floor?!”

Silver eyes glanced at the room, “While I expect some places to become rather messy here, there will be areas that I would prefer to remain clean. For tasks other than smithing and forging.”

Isra bristled, “Great, so ‘my smithy’ will be nothing more than a tiny corner. A place of dirt and grime that shies away from the ‘clean’ tasks. Probably beside that potter too. Why aren’t you back there, pestering him with questions as you did with me?”

He sighed, “Keivan is a wer and a Manor-less one at that. He is perfectly happy to make anything out of clay as long as he stays under the grace of Kiymetl. Nor do I need artistry from him — his knowledge of how to shape clay will be plenty. But this is going nowhere. You were eager to join this Manor. Eager enough to leave your maternal one behind and to swear an oath to a new one.”

She opened her mouth to retort but he pressed on, “Which means you desperately wanted something. Something that your previous Manor wouldn’t or couldn’t give to you. What were you seeking?”

The familiar pressure in her throat made her choke on the usual retort.

“What do I want?” Isra croaked, desperately trying to push everything down as the burden grew stronger and stronger.

And then the dam broke.

“For five decades, I swung my hammer as a smith! I’ve tended to bellows for even longer. Practising, polishing my craft! Only to be stuck shoeing hooves and assisting my elder sisters and aunts. Even when I became a master, the attitude didn’t change. That kattar I presented to Domina was my master’s work, the proof that I was no longer just a smith. But does it matter when your Manor is full of other masters? Ones closer to the ruling family and with centuries of knowledge!”

Her hoof kicked a rock. “I thought that in a different House I would be seen as something more. Only to realize that it is the same everywhere. Once again I am stuck at the bottom.”

The murk rolled his eyes, “Because you answer to a murk?”

She looked down at the kid, “Why do you even need a smith at all? To make you pans and pots from something other than clay?”

“I have another wermage for that, actually.” Braggart too, “But can you make a flask worthy of The Alchemist?”

“If I had the place set up,” her hand gestured at the empty hall, “why not?”

“A sealed flask, the one that would not leak water nor air.” He pressed on, “One I could fill up and throw into a fire, yet not a drop of steam would escape.”

“That…hmm,” She scratched her horn, “You would need a mechanism to hold the lid, more you wish to hold — harder you would need to press it. But it is doable.”

“Or you could put a lid inside and let the steam hold it for you. Granted, at higher pressures, it would need very smooth surfaces.”

“Was that a trick question?” Isra harrumphed, crossing her arms, “Did you plan this to somehow catch me unawares?”

The murk patted his chest and groaned, “No wonder, this new shirt has a higher neckline. I sometimes wonder how much this trinket affects my treatment.”

The golden medallion emerged and her jaw closed shut with a click. “Um…” Isra wasn’t quite sure where to put her arms now.

“Looks like it does make a lot of difference,” The Alchemist dropped the Gestr and sighed, “From one side I should be annoyed that a mere trinket is worth more in the eyes of wermages. On the other hand, I have other things to worry about right now than racial discrimination.”

“Um…” She tried again while glancing around to make sure no one overheard them. A tiger wer was waiting nearby but luckily far enough, “I am sorry? Please don’t tell Domina!”

He glanced at her for a few moments then shook his head. Her heart sank, “You are still not grasping the situation here. It is no wonder you had issues at your own Manor.”

“What do you mean? I was praised for my hard work!”

“What I mean is that you didn’t bother to read the crowd, Isra Haleh. Why do you think Domina would welcome you into her Manor only to send you working under a murk slave.” He patted his sash, “A slave that has quite a lot of titles already, even without the Gestr.”

She took another glance at the stitched patterns as there were quite a few of them. He belonged to Kiymetl, was a tutor, and the Alchemist. Her lip trembled: there was another, newer embroidery on the cloth that was hinting at some relationship with the main family. This murk, despite being a slave, was somehow related or connected to Aikerim herself.

“Aikerim didn’t seek a smith for her Manor,” He continued, unperturbed by his public display of familiarity, “She sought you out for her Alchemist because I need a smith. And if you are concerned about your status as one, it is me you should be worried about. And act accordingly.”

Isra wanted to glare at him, to scream and yell, but she held herself back. If what he said was true, she won’t just lose her status but her place in this Manor too.

“I just wanted to be a smith.” She mumbled as her fingers twiddled with the tuft at the tip of her tail, feeling the rest of the world pushing down on her more and more. Like a spiteful kid squeezing a bird just to see what would happen next. “I never wanted to be a Speaker or a Rhetor. I wanted to be proud of my craft, isn’t that enough?”

“You wish to be judged by your deeds?” Isra nodded quickly, “Yet you judged me by the lack of Spark and not for my accomplishments. Is that fair?”

“That’s…” She wasn’t sure where to look, unable to meet the silver gaze. How was she supposed to know? Yes, some murks held high positions. Some were teachers just like him, but they taught kids! Isra had her personal anvil before his mother was even born!

Another sigh. “Do you wish to start this over?”

“Can I? I m-mean yes!”

He nodded and walked into the building. “I do need a smith and not for the trivial things. And I trust Aikerim not to grab someone from the streets either. I didn’t even ask for a wermage, thinking that to be impossible, yet you are here. The main reason that this place is empty is that I didn’t wish to start without your input. While I am the Alchemist and I know a trick or two, I also know that I am no smith here, nor will I be the one working. That was my original offer to you: your own smithy made to your desires with my plans in mind.”

Her eyes roamed the place with a newfound shock as she licked the suddenly dry lips. This warehouse was of a special make and visibly crafted by earth mages just like many grand projects in the city. “You mean all of this would be mine?” To claim that your entire smithy was shaped by Flow? All her sisters would die of envy, especially Alizeh and Esmat.

“For now. You might get more later.” He sharply turned around and looked at her, “As long as you treat me with the same level of respect I have given you. I need things done and I need a smith that would do them. Experienced enough to work alone and teach others, while respectful enough to meet my plans exactly as I’ve outlined them. Whether it would be you or not. I don’t need a master smith — if this doesn’t work out I could take a Manor-less apprentice that knows not to grab the glowing end with bare hands. It would take longer, but right now I want discipline over skill.”

“No-no-no-no!” Isra grabbed and shook him in the air, trying to stop those thoughts of his from leaving his mouth. “I will do it! I’ll swear an oath to you if I have to, just let me have this place! I will craft the shoes for this Manor and all the pots and alchemy jars you want for the rest of your life!”

“I told you that I don’t need pots or jars at all,” Alchemist took a few unsteady steps and grabbed on her tunic as he waved the suddenly concerned tiger wer away. “I need you to make me metal.”

“Like an Alchemical metal?” She gasped, “Are you trying to recreate the Fulad steel?”

“No, I need other types of alloy steel but that will be for later. Right now I need to make a good grade of steel and in very large quantities. I am not trying to make a knife or a sword: we will be building future tools for you to use. Tools that will be larger than you.”

“Out of steel? Our Domina is that rich?”

He smirked, “Other alchemists try to make gold out of lead. We will be making steel out of trash.”

“No wonder you have such a lavish warehouse…” All of it still felt like a dream to her. A dream she didn’t want to wake up from, but one that still made her weak in her legs somewhat.

“Lavish?” Alchemist frowned, looking around, “It is an empty place, surrounded by four walls and a roof.”

“The floor.” Her hoof clacked on the stone. Isra knew that dull sound, this wasn’t just a slab but a single piece of solid stone that ran quite deep. The entire floor was made out of one single piece. A work of a true earth mage, or likely many. “How many wermages did it take to make something like this? Some families resort to such work only for their most prominent hallways and meeting rooms. Not warehouses and workshops.”

“Ah that. I told you I wanted it to be easy to clean, impossible to shake and unlikely to move. Once we are done making steel, we will be working on carving metal so precisely that even a hair width would be too much.” The Alchemist grinned, “Know that Samat Manor built it for me as well as all the other buildings nearby, as an apology for thinking I was a mere murk.”

Isra loudly swallowed, “Even the aqueduct above?”

“Especially the aqueduct above. I don’t just need water, but the energy to run your bellows as well as many other machines that will be around here.”

“C-Can I ask? Please don’t resent me for it!”

“You have been asking questions all this time, but yes you can ask. Moreover, I want you to ask questions, I demand you to. I would prefer that you ask a trifle question rather than assume.”

“Um, what is your name?” She sheepishly tugged on her tail.

Aikerim Kiymetl Adal

The strong hands massaged her sore shoulders.

“You didn’t need to be that strict with my grand-niece,” Tarhunna spoke above her head. “She is like a child in her eagerness, Haleh would serve you without a second thought.”

“Mmmh. I didn’t need to, no. But I wanted to.” She ate another grape, “I have told you already. Erf is mine. I will not let another Manor sink their hands into him. Even yours, Tar.”

“Would that be prudent? She isn’t that well versed in rhetorics, by the time the summer ends she will be eating out of his hands.”

“Isn’t that why you chose the unmarried niece?”

Her husband scoffed, “She would only recognize interest if it hit her horns with an anvil. A married smith would only cause unnecessary strife, especially if she decides to try her luck by dismissing her husband. And you know how hard it is to find a male master smith. Still, you are making him grow stronger. Do you think it’s wise?”

“I trust your judgement when it comes to Dominas and other well-established wermages,” Aikerim murmured, rolling a grape on the plate, “But he is a murk. Despite all his knowledge and abilities, he still thinks like one. Trust me on this, for I built my fortune through the murk shepherds. I do not fear him taking too much or not returning the gratitude tenfold.

“You have seen the new dress for Anaise and the gifts she will carry. Or the estate that Samat built for him, while Shahin Esca desperately tries to claw her favour back. All the gold that I’ve spent on him is back in my coffers with piles more, while my dear older sister is desperately trying to meet me after giving me the cold shoulder for all these years. No, my dear husband, what I fear is that he will seek someone else to ask. Another Manor to rely on.”

She chuckled, “I would prefer him to be strong and independent, and married to my daughter, rather than fully under my foot yet working with someone else.”

“Like Albin Shebet Chasya.”

“Yes like him.” She sighed, “It took just a day from when his sister threatened his family to Erf pushing down on him and demanding to set things right. I asked. And the Speaker of Shebet walked against his entire House. Just to set things straight! That is what scares me. I know his battle records — most wise wermages do. He might have lost some battles but campaigns? Never.”

Her teeth pierced the juicy grape.

“I will not bicker where the smith’s allegiance would lie in future, only to lose my golden-feathered peacock while doing so.”