Chapter 17. Rustles in the Grass
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“It appears that the new smith likes you very much.”

I glared at Viter, “If you want your leg broken again, I can ask my wife. ‘Likes me very much’ my ass. I think she shook my bones loose somewhere.”

My wertiger bodyguard, who was purchased by Aikerim quite some time ago, was finally back in action. Irje borrowed his skills at brawling and fighting while I was gone to fetch my family; unfortunately, my cougar had too much strength and too little practice.

He glanced back, “Do you want me to…”

“No. She is eager, not a threat. A wermage too. I am not stupid or petty enough to sic you on someone like that.”

“Right,” Viter nodded, “Your wife is training for the army, most likely to follow you. Do you wish for me to train as well?”

I scratched my chin, “I will not force you to, but you are welcome when you are free. I might ask for you to stay at the Manor instead, however.”

“You need me for another task?”

“Yes, I will be going not only to get my freedom but to gain the right to free others under my protection. Irje is coming with me to help me out of her own choice. Probably to keep some eager girls away too. But I would prefer to leave Yeva behind, and she is not eager to live the army life. Unless she changes her mind until then.”

Yeva was generally averse to violence, but she could always change her mind once nanites took hold. But I preferred to plan ahead.

Viter shrugged, “Probably better that way. Most of the standing army is made of men. It is a woman’s job to lead and plan while men fight. Irje would likely stop advances on you from other members of your finger. Although, judging by what I saw after my recovery, some of the ranking wermages might notice you too.”

“You’ve served?”

“No, but I had plans to,” He glanced down at his claws, “A paying job is hard to find. Freedom is fleeting if you have to sell it back to feed yourself.”

I frowned, “Do you wish to? You can continue serving me through it and then after as a freed wer.”

“No.” He glanced around, “I was brought here when I was a child, and have no desire to fight for Emanai. Especially now that I am serving you. I earn more while under you than I would by marching through the Forest. If the time comes in the future when I am free but without work — I will think of it again. Freedom alone is not enough for me.”

“Are there many like you here? Most of the slaves I knew back at the farm were born there.”

“Most wer are either brought from other places or sell themselves due to poverty. Irje, for example, was probably brought here — she doesn’t resemble any usual wer of Emanai, nor does she look like a mix.”

“Right,” I nodded awkwardly. That was not an easy conversation by all means. Irje remembered her mother but not much else. A spoil of a war from long ago. Probably even from the same place as Viter, since they both had feline traits. I should probably ask her more about it, but I had a feeling she probably knew even less.

“So, you wish for me to serve Yeva once you are gone?” he tactfully chose to shift the topic.

“Yes, I need someone I can trust that would answer to her. I can’t ask Anaise or, stars forbid, Aikerim to do that, and I don’t trust Shahin. Vera, the little girl that acts as her guide, is small and weak. Especially for trips outside. Having the large and bulky frame of a tiger wer behind her would deter many from ruining her day.”

“You expect her to leave the Manor often?”

“Eventually,” I shrugged, “Once her condition is healed.”

“The Alchemist, right.”

XXX

“For your actions during the night, you have my gratitude.” Shahin bowed.

Shahin chose an open spot outside for our talk, letting her tail bask under the direct sunlight. She probably had to cover the black scales back at home, but here they were in her favour.

I didn’t mind the place either. I still felt rather awkward sitting in my ‘meeting room’, a place where I should welcome my guests by the standards of Emanai. I already denied any attempts to turn it into a sandbox like the wermages tend to do, but it still looked like some weird combination of an office, a banquet hall, and a throne room.

It was the latter part that still made it awkward for me. I knew this was the norm of their society and, just like the golden Gestr on my neck, it informed everyone inside about my status. Allowing either party to avoid blunders similar to Isra’s. But knowing it and actually doing it were two completely different things. I could lounge and goof around, either alone or surrounded by my sadaq. But to meet someone while laying in the centre of the room like some sort of posh meal? No thanks.

At least it made some sense with wermages — they had tails to worry about.

I had to tell Wrena to make me a decent chair instead. Make it grand enough to circumvent the fact I was sitting like a servant rather than lying like a master. Make it more office-like. My estate was already built differently, with future designs in mind, and another alteration wouldn’t be that bad. The girls could choose their own furniture too. Heck, it might fool some guests by giving Anaise a couch while I would sit beside her.

“As an envoy, you know trust is important. My words would mean nothing without it.”

“Even threats?”

“There is no threat if you have no trust in the other party’s strength and willingness to use violence.”

Shahin murmured something in agreement but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. Perhaps I was too eager to dismiss my ‘throne room’. “…And he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.”

“What an interesting saying, but what do you mean by it?” She followed my gaze to the approaching Amalric and his clique, “Ah…”

“Was this one of your plans again?”

“I have not spoken to him since my trial.”

I cast a quick side-glance at her. That wasn’t what I asked.

“I knew I would find you here, Lady Esca.”

I turned back to the werfox in silence. There was no point bickering right now.

“Please rest assured that I will save you from this ordeal,” His tail swished in frustration, “I have known his kind in the past: honeyed words that promise you sky above and lands around. Only to lure you deeper into a trap. I’ve heard that he started planning to join Emanai arms as soon as my mother gifted you to him. A teacher and a craftsman, that is afraid to walk without a bodyguard inside the Manor, is suddenly eager to witness real blood? It all makes sense if we take you into account.”

Shahin frowned, “You seek freedom? Is that true?”

“Yes and no. I seek freedom but I have no intention of taking you along,” I thought for a second, trying to remember his name, “Amalric Karim, I fear that Domina had been very clear in her wishes.”

“He lies again,” Amalric sighed, without even sparing me a glance, “He hid behind my mother’s back that time; rest assured that he will try to do the same with you. And tell the cur that my mother did not forbid me from walking through my Manor, nor speaking with those I deem worthy.”

I shook my head. So, by talking to her, he wasn’t actually talking to me and thus his mother’s command was still followed. At least in the word alone. But I had no intention to argue about the spirit of the law. In fact, I had very little desire to continue this charade at all.

“Please inform Amalric Karim that I, unfortunately, do have business elsewhere.” I tried to walk around the crowd.

“I am sorry Amalric,” Shahin bowed demurely, “My master calls.”

“Master!?” My future brother-in-law gasped, stepping in our way. “Has he stepped so low just to debase you even further? This is unacceptable! Tell him to release you this very instant — I will care for you as your status deserves. You are a wermage of a distinguished bloodline — Servitude or not, he has no right to treat you like a slave!”

I shook my head, “Tell him to demand it from Domina, not me. It was the will of Aikerim Adal to bestow you on me despite my vocal and continuous refusals. Asking me to try again would not affect the outcome.”

The scales scraped across the pavement and the lamia was all around me in an instant, blocking off a surprised Amalric.

“What is the meaning of this?” Shahin harshly whispered with her customary veil almost brushing my face, “We had an agreement. Did you not say that you need a wermage to power your runes?”

“And I already got one. Tarhunna Wafiq had introduced me to a wermage smith. Eager to start working.”

Her eyes narrowed, “So after all that talk about responsibility, you are eager to throw me away just as you found a replacement? Some master you are.”

“I told him exactly what I told you yesterday. If you are willing to work with me, I will return the favour, but that,” I pointed at the likely direction where Amalric stood, “is of your own doing. I don’t know what were your plans for him today, but his current stance and hostility were caused by you alone. And I have no desire to waste my time and effort on it. Either fix this yourself or ask Domina for a different master. I have no doubts that your life under Amalric would be an easy one: he is almost jumping just to please you.”

“I see,” Shahin stood up, unravelling her tall barrier around us, and turned around to the werfox nearby, “Amalric Karim, do you know of wermage Servitude?”

The green eyes of Anaise’s brother glanced my way for a moment, “I do. As a wermage, you can never serve for life, and you can take it only voluntary. That is why I am here — I know my mother gave you little choice but you can still ask to serve another.”

“That is correct, yet it is not. While I did not appreciate the options presented to me, the choice of the master was mine alone. My mind has not changed since. I came here across the South sea to find the craftsman that learnt our secrets and I have found more. The knowledge I might learn from him is of greater worth to my Manor than anything else Kiymetl could provide.”

His ears flopped flat in anger among the murmur of his group.

“To dare and reject my gracious offer?” His voice was almost a whisper, “My aunt was right, all of you are blinded by his words. Fine. But once he changes hands and so will you as his servant. Perhaps then you will recognize how generous I was today.”

Amalric scoffed and walked away. Some of his support group spat on the ground and muttered choice words in a show of disgust, but they left us otherwise alone. Domina’s word was the law here. While her son might not receive too harsh of a punishment, the others would likely see her full wrath if they tried to do anything untoward.

We stood there alone in silence for a few moments, each of us with our thoughts.

“Was that sufficient?” Shahin glanced at me from above.

“He did leave,” I frowned, “While leaving some words behind. What did he mean about you changing hands as well?”

“Domina has given my fifty years of service to you. So if your master changes it would apply to me as well. Did you want to see my determination? While I do not believe that Aikerim Adal is willing to let you go, there is a chance that someone might force her to. Like her elder sister or her mother. They wouldn’t be able to take me away if I am not willing, but I would serve them through you anyway.”

“Elder sister? I think I heard Aikerim mention her once or twice in front of me. But she didn’t sound concerned.” I shook my head, “I will ask her tomorrow.”

Lamia tilted her head, “True, this might be nothing else but idle threats, born out of anger.”

We kept walking to the kilns as we discussed what accommodations lamuras needed. My assumptions had been correct: as long as she had some external heat, or plenty of food, she could withstand the cold of the night. At least during the summer. She also made it clear that having her magic back would be preferable to either of these options.

Finally my arguments were getting across. Or Shahin understood that I knew all of that anyway and decided not to bother with roundabout conversations. Small mercies. I would appreciate her prowess at intrigues at a later time and for different purposes.

But Flow…

I scratched my chin. “You said that extreme fire is unlikely for a wermage to achieve alone, but what if we approach this issue from another angle. Do you know runes that would sap the heat away? Or prevent an object from melting?

“There are runes that give resistance to fire.” She nodded, “What do you seek?”

“I seek a furnace that wouldn’t melt from the heat I want it to work at. At least until I can find zirconia and other materials that can make them last longer than a single firing. How many could you support? And how long?”

“I can keep the Flow around one if we are talking about the kilns already built in the workshop.”

I nodded. “We can try it once and see the end result. Do tell me freely about any limitations: I want the truth, not success at all costs.”

Shahin looked at me for a while and nodded slightly, “I will hold it for a day at most. Anything more would cause depletion. I would also need short breaks in-between; the process, while simple, is still taxing to the mind.”

“That is fine. I want to see the effect that you can maintain daily and with ease, not your peak efficiency. If it works — great, but I am still planning to get a few labourers and roam the lands until I find the rocks and sands I need to avoid runes altogether.”

“The sand merchants don’t have what you seek?”

I stopped mid-step, “The what now?”

This was absolute news to me, but I had to admit that I wasn’t buying sand myself. I merely informed Sulla and sand just appeared at my workshops so I didn’t enquire further. Nor did I see any ‘sand merchants’ during my previous trips to the low city markets.

The black and yellow eyes blinked, “The ones that supply Manors with sand. Every Manor has at least ten rooms with floors made out of sand, but likely even more. Sand is cheap, so old and well-established Manors showcase their wealth sometimes by using different styles and colours rather than filling more rooms. And if there is a demand — there will be a merchant that seeks to earn gold from it.”

I slapped my face, not even caring how I looked in front of Shahin. “And they wouldn’t just show their wares to the passers-by. Or reside in the loud crafting districts. I would need to visit one of them as soon as possible — proper refractory materials would save a lot of headaches now and in the future.”

Shahin glanced down at my belt, “About the runes…”

Ah. Of course.

“The first part of making a mirror is the creation of a glass pane.” I casually mentioned as my hands took the key from a keyring on my sash. Slightly amused at how her eyes didn’t know where to stare: at the key that would give back her magic, or at me who was telling her the secrets of glass. “It needs to be flat and smooth or it would distort the view. The cast for metal mirrors is made as smooth as possible but they still require rigorous polishing afterwards. Because you want it to be as smooth as the surface of a still lake. Or a pool of liquid glass. Hot enough that it flows like diluted honey.”

“Hot enough that it would melt the kiln itself,” Shahin murmured, deciding to ignore the key for now, “Unless one carves the runes, or protects it with something else.”

“Indeed. But that would give us only one surface. Unless you spill that molten glass into another liquid as you would oil on water. Something heavy yet equally hot or the glass would cool too quickly. Something like molten metal.” I threw the key into her hands, “We will start today and I will guide you properly through every stage. You will be in charge of this process from now on, at least for the foreseeable future.”

Her fingers gripped my ‘gift’ while Shahin bowed deep, “I am grateful for this insight. While Amalric was a useful asset, the words that you just spoke are more valuable to my Manor than any gifts he would shower me with. Do I have permission to tell this to my sisters once they arrive?”

“Ask Aikerim. I don’t care, but this is between Manors. Or you can simply wait until your fifty years are over. But I am not teaching you this because of him but because of what you said about sand shops.”

“Is that a jest?” She looked at me askance, “Or are you trying to brag how little this method is worth to you?”

“To prove my point. There are things that I expect you to handle yourself, like Amalric. Then there are tasks I ask of you that would undoubtedly earn you something in return. Your general work ethic will get you better reception among my sadaq and your work with Flow will keep the shackles off. And then there is the third type. Things you do of your own volition and without my request, yet they are of great benefit to me and mine.

“I am not stupid enough to treat you like some random wermage that only knows how to skillfully shape glass. We both know you are way smarter than that, and ambitious too. Your Manor wouldn’t have made you an envoy otherwise. And I would prefer to have it as well. Not just your knowledge where I need to ask specific questions but your insight into things that I have no idea about.”

She listened quietly, as her fingers deftly pushed the key into the bracelet. A flash of light and the shackles came undone.

A quiet sigh emerged from her lips.

I chuckled, “It is impossible to order you to do so, just like one cannot order another to love them as their family. But I can make sure to reward such actions accordingly. I do not care whether you do it due to traditions, ambitions, or personal desires, as long as you actually do it.”

“Hmm…” Lamia twisted and rolled her tail while stretching her upper body, “You sure know how to compliment a lady. But this task… ‘give me that, do not know what’. It sounds like it came from a folk tale.”

Once again the wall of black scales, interspersed with yellow stripes, started to coil around me. Like a humongous mangrove snake. Shahin didn’t touch me yet she made sure I could see nothing but her. Her eyes crinkled as the veil barely hid the smile underneath, “Are you going to ask me to retrieve the feathers of a Fire-bird next?”

I sighed and shook my head. There was a visible difference in her speech once the shackles were off. “It is not a task but an attitude. I know that these things would not happen often, so a boon should count for that as well. Come, we have a lot of things to do today.”

Shahin had no idea but she was somewhat right. Mirrors were the least of my concerns right now. Yes, they would fetch stellar prices and cause a lot of commotion across the highest ranks of Emanai society, as well as abroad. Yet, what was really important was my need for window panes and a lot of them. For the greenhouses and windows within my estate.

My place was beautifully made and a pleasure to look at, but I wanted my creature comforts. Stuff like not worrying about whether I want light inside the room or the lack of wind. Or the ability to dictate room temperature in the future. I knew at least one scaly being that would appreciate that too.

But even that wasn’t all. With the potter at hand, I could start making rough moulds for lenses. While the previously mentioned sand shops might not provide me with refractory minerals, they will definitely give me more options with sand quality and abrasive materials. Especially when it came to making clear glass designed for optics.

Mirrors were nothing but trinkets if one compared them to a spyglass.

 

Amanzhan Kiymetl Irada

In the centre of a merry banquet, a wermage of Kosenya Manor bowed slightly in front of Amanzhan Irada, presenting a scroll forward, “Greetings, oh Speaker of Kiymetl. It is my honour to bring the words of my Matriarch directly to you. She has found your gifts most delightful.”

She graced the messenger with a smile and a nod. He was young but with a stately build — She always liked their Manor most out of the three that made the old House of War. Their ears and tails weren’t as wild and wolfish as the Kamshad Manor, nor were they floppy like the Kishava. They were also the least affluent of the three and easier to please.

It was unfortunate that his Spark was somewhat lacking or she would have considered much closer ties. Her Heat was coming soon and she had started to find herself following certain tails with increased frequency. Amanzhan even called this feast for this exact reason, unfortunately without luck so far. Young wermage males with bright Sparks were snatched quickly, quite often by one of their own House Dominas.

She wasn’t desperate, however. Amanzhan had her sadaq. If she would find herself unable to find a fitting candidate to sire her next child, it would be her third husband’s turn. Or they would please her all at once so that the strongest seed would win.

The scroll flew over into her hands, while a faint smile appeared on her lips. She was the eldest Domina of Kiymetl, First Daughter of the Matriarch. She deserved to have only the most potent seed of her husbands.

“Please young mage, stay and enjoy our feast. It would be improper if I let you leave hungry and without entertainment,” Amanzhan smiled at him and gestured to an empty spot at a nearby table, lush with delicacies and wine. “Your Matriarch should think nothing about it: the day of the Divine Ritual is auspicious but also urgently close, and many Manors are in a rush to prepare appropriate gifts.”

Kosenya Manors had a lot of influence as the House of Defence and protectors of the realm, but they saw little wealth compared to the other two. Manors of Kamshad led warriors forward to fight and plunder, while the suppliers of Kishava fed Emanai arms and sold the captured slaves across the country.

The young lad bowed again, speaking pleasantries, and stepped aside. In the meantime, Amanzhan broke the seal and quickly read the scroll.

A different kind of smile graced her lips and disappeared once again. Her tail flicked in demand and a slave rushed forward to her table with a blank sheet of parchment.

“The task of an elder sister is an arduous one,” She quietly murmured to herself, quickly writing a message. Her own words drowned in the noise of music and loud conversations across the room. “Especially when it comes to keeping the rest of her sisters in line.”

Relationship with Samat was always a concern. Their Manor, despite being a Pillar one, wasn’t as secure as the others. She would not allow the younger one to shake it further for personal greed.

The scroll was rolled and her seal pressed on the wax.

Amanzhan placed it into the hands of her attendant but didn’t let go, “Deliver this personally. Into the hands of Sophia Shebet Chasya herself and no one else.”

XXX

My hands slowly massaged Yeva’s back, pushing the kinks and stresses of the day away. And distracting her from what would happen next. I didn’t have Lif nearby to create a better solution and I didn’t have a ton of extra nanites to spare, even after eating the Harald fruit.

Which meant that I had to resort to the most effective method that minimized any losses. While it would be painless, I still decided not to delve too deep into the details. It was kinda hard to explain the process of stabbing Harald’s tentacle into her bloodstream. Yeva also wanted to feel the effects as soon as possible, so nanites would be pumped straight into her carotid artery, close to her brain and her eyes.

My lack of clear explanations and the upcoming event kept her a little bit fidgety.

“Erf? You will still care for me after this, right?”

“My feelings don't change overnight, love.”

“I just don’t want to wake up as another person tomorrow. Someone not me. I can feel your pain every time you speak to your family and I don’t want something similar to happen between us.”

I gently brushed her locks away. “I was a special case. I didn’t just get knowledge and strength — I got a burden to carry. The Tree-ship, that is patiently waiting for her Navigator somewhere in the Forest. The power, that is so vast that I was not allowed to remain young and immature while wielding it. I had to grow and grow fast. You won’t have that.”

I placed her hand on my chest, “You noticed my strength before. Yet it feels almost wer-like as I don’t have huge bulging muscles to explain it. The same would happen to your body and your mind. All would remain the same, what would change is the strength within. Both physical and intellectual. You will still remain my Yeva.”

“Erf?”

“Hmm?

“Are you trying to console me or to grope my butt?”

“Can’t I do both? I am trying to show my emotions here. And you do have a nice round butt.” I teased her back, eager to blow away the doom and gloom atmosphere.

Yeva scrunched her nose, “You made me eat three meals right before bed — it is my stomach that is round. No fun for you tonight, mister.”

“I enjoy watching you in pleasure just as much.”

“Fine,” Yeva graciously allowed, rolling in my lap. Her fingers picked up my hand and slid it under the sheets. Closer to the warmth at the bottom of her stomach. “I want you to make me forget myself tonight. To think of nothing but these fingers of yours, to hear nothing but the loud beating of my heart and the lullaby of your voice.”

I felt her grind against my palm, the warm velvet of her skin. “And then, when I am begging for the rapture, I want you to throw me into the bliss. Just as you’ve done numerous times in the past. Hard enough that I will fall asleep inside your arms with a smile on my lips.

Only to wake up tomorrow as the new murk ‘daimon’. Your daimon.”

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