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IN THUNDER FORGED: IRON KINGDOMS CHRONICLES
THE FALL OF LLAEL BOOK ONE
By ARI MARMELL
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2013 Privateer Press, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Glaceus 4th, 605 AR Leryn, Llael
The casual observer might never even have known the nation was at war. The sun had fallen off the world's edge more than an hour ago, and still the streets were, if not bustling, certainly a far cry from abandoned. Men and women scurried about their business, wrapped in gaudy coats and vibrant gowns against winter's insidious caress. Most were human, but the occasional fabric-swaddled figure, too short for the Ryn ethnic majority but too broad of shoulder for errant children, suggested a late-night dwarf. They tromped across a carpet of fresh snow, their finery gleaming in the radiance of wrought iron streetlamps. Some of those flickered with gas-fed flame, others with an alchemical luminescence far steadier yet somehow less comforting.
Each citizen nodded, curtsied, waved, or exchanged brief witticisms with the next, all dependent on the passerby's social status—or at least, the social status implied by the quality and cleanliness of his attire. Voices swirled overhead, blown by the winds, kicked into flurries almost choral in their harmonies. One might have overheard discussion of the Lord Regent Glabryn's latest scandals, the squabbling amongst the Council of Nobles, the winner of last week's derby, or the recent performance of Oswinne Muir's newest opus, An Orgoth Goes a'Courting.
One would not have heard mention of the expanding western front, of the shadow of Khador slowly darkening the face of Llael. One would have seen nobody acknowledge the brittle edge to jests, the tremor in the laughter, or the occasional reverberating clang from beyond the outer walls, the ponderous step of a patrolling warjack.
No one spoke of the war. No one acknowledged their fears.
It would have been gauche.
One particular couple, elbows intertwined, shuffled quickly, seemingly eager to catch the misty plumes they exhaled with every breath. He was regal, buttoned up tight in high-collared greatcoat atop an emerald vest, his iron-gray hair swept back in a style that not only acknowledged the receding hairline, but haughtily dared anyone to comment on it.
She was wrapped in brilliant scarlet and gleaming gold, a beacon as radiant as any of the streetlamps. A fox-fur stole was her only concession to the nighttime chill. Hair the hue of a lion's pelt fell in perfectly curled ringlets around a face that was just too round to be called classically "patrician."
She was also, at best, half the gentleman's age. That, along with the fact that she gazed at him adoringly with eyes like dark-brewed ale when she wasn't busy laughing at his witticisms, might have gone a long way toward explaining his obvious fervor to reach their destination.
They drifted past several structures, each boasting a magnificent façade of stately columns and arched windows—all deliberate modern echoes of the architecture of centuries past. And then they arrived, ducking through one deep doorway to stand in a hall of lush carpeting and glowing chandeliers. Some herbal treatment of the fixtures—or, perhaps, of the pipes, or the gas itself?—imbued the burning fumes with a vaguely floral aroma.
The gentleman beamed, even puffing his chest out, at the dazzled coo wafting from his companion's lips. "This is just a taste," he offered. "The actual amenities are even more impressive. My suite occupies a full half of the fifth floor."
"I can hardly wait to see it," she said in a breathy tone. His own breath caught in his throat, as he wondered if her offhand comment might suggest what he hoped it did. Placing his free hand on the slender arm resting in the crook of his elbow, he led her toward, and then up, the sweeping stairs.
"Goodman Tolamos," she began right around the third floor.
"Please, please. 'Lyrran,' dear Garland, by all means."
"Lyrran," she corrected, paying for his given name with another heart-stopping smile. "I don't think I quite understand ... This place is marvelous, but why keep an apartment? Surely a man of your success and your means could afford a home—an estate!—of your own?"
"I could," Lyrran admitted. They'd reached the fourth floor, now, and he struggled to hold up his end of the conversation and continue walking without sucking in ragged gasps between. Not as young as you used to be, old fool.
Then, with another glance at Garland's upturned face, And you're going to need your strength ...
"I could," he repeated after what he hoped was a discreet wheeze. "But I often spend late nights in my workshop, and I'm no great admirer of the dormitories the Crucible makes available. I decided that living within a few minutes' walk of Thunderhead was worth the inconvenience of dwelling in a building I don't own."
Of course, had I known then that the only deluxe suite available was on the fifth bloody floor ... !
They stepped from the landing, Lyrran again leading, and stopped at a massive door of hardwood, intricately inlaid with abstract leaf patterns.
"Just a moment, my dear."
Lyrran tugged a small chain, setting off the faintest tinkling beyond. The butler—a tall, thin, dark-haired fellow who more or less resembled every other butler the world over—had barely opened the door before his master was whispering instructions. The manservant glanced over at the woman, back at his employer. Then, with neither expression nor gesture, he squeezed past them and headed, at a stately saunter, toward the staircase.
"He keeps a small private chamber on an upper floor," Lyrran explained. "And my other servants rarely work this late. We should be able to converse undisturbed."
"Oh, my. Goodman Tolamos, do you feel that's entirely proper?"
"I ... Ah, I ..."
"Your man is discreet, at least?"
"Of course!" Lyrran hoped he didn't sound as relieved as he felt.
"Well, that's all right then, isn't it?" Garland breezed past him with a faint giggle. "Wine?" she asked.
"My dear, please! I'm your host, you should allow me to—"
"Nonsense! Sit, rest. I'll be just a moment." Then, her voice slightly more distant, "Um, perhaps two moments, then. My, this is a big place ..."
Lyrran briefly wondered if the entire magical evening had been a setup so he might be robbed—then shrugged, shut the door, and lowered himself carefully into an old leather chair. He was in no position to stop her if she were a thief; too tired to chase her, and though he carried a double-barreled holdout in his vest, he couldn't imagine shooting the woman ...
Still, he breathed a silent lungful of relief what she reappeared, a wine goblet in each hand. "No trouble finding anything?" he asked, half-amused, half-chiding.
"Oh, no! Your home is laid out so sensibly, I felt like I knew where to look for everything!"
Lyrran smiled and accepted the libation. "To Llael," he offered, raising his goblet—the closest he meant to come, tonight, to acknowledging the war.
Hmm. The gentleman suppressed a scowl as the wine washed over his tongue. She may have found everything, but she doesn't remotely know how to choose a proper vintage! This has almost gone bad ...
"But then," Garland was saying as she daintily wiped at her own lips with a kerchief, "I suppose you'd have to be meticulously organized, working with all those awful tinctures and powders and whatnot. I don't imagine you'd want to grab the wrong one of those!"
"No," Lyrran agreed with a chuckle. "You really wouldn't."
"For instance," Garland continued, "can you imagine if I'd chosen the wrong powder to mix in your wine? Or just dropped in a pinch too many? Why, you could be dying right now, instead of just growing sleepy. That would be a tragedy, wouldn't it?"
"I ... What?" Why was his tongue suddenly so thick, as though it wore its own winter coat? He blinked, and now not only were there two Garlands, but they—and the room around them—ran like a wet watercolor.
"Now, then," Garland said, "we haven't a great deal of time, have we?" Hiking up her skirts so she could sit, she settled in Lyrran's lap. The old alchemist knew he should be excited by that—would have been, only a few moments before—but he was having trouble remembering why.
"So," she continued, tapping a finger almost playfully against his lips and peering into his blinking, unfocused eyes. "Before you're off on your little snooze and forget that this entire evening ever happened, let's discuss Thunderhead Fortress. And the Golden Crucible.
"And, if you happen to have made the fellow's acquaintance, a gentleman by the name of Idran di Meryse ..."
* * *
This time, Garland stepped alone into the light flurries, her stole wrapped tight about her chest and shoulders. She'd never have admitted it aloud, but she was grateful that the morrecaine salts had proven so efficacious. A small minority of people proved resistant to the stuff, and Lyrran Tolamos was a nice enough man. She'd have found it unpleasant to extract his knowledge the hard way.
All was well, though, or at least as well as could be hoped. The alchemist lay at home, bound and snoring rather than whimpering and bleeding, and Garland was out in the cold, prepared to break into the single most fortified structure in this heavily fortified city.
Again she smiled or waved or nodded to those she passed, though it had grown late enough that pedestrians were scarce. The night drifted in silence, save for those same mechanical footsteps occasionally ringing in the distance, or the crack of small ice floes along the banks of the Oldwick.
Garland checked the sky, even though she knew she'd find no guidance there. Between the bulk of Mount Borgio, blocking out a broad slice of the heavens, and the lowering clouds obscuring the rest, she was more likely to spot a lurking ghost than any star.
She knew her way; no hesitation showed in her stride. Still, for all she'd studied Leryn's streets, she was a newcomer here. She'd have preferred the stars to confirm her course.
Then the gusting breeze thickened, not merely with the stinging cold, but the biting, eye-watering stink of the Rynyr Red and the sharp tang of spent blasting powder. Garland couldn't help but smirk. Where even the stars and the heavens fail, trust in the absolute worst stench you can imagine.
Garland rounded a final corner and stared into what might almost have been another world.
The bulk of Leryn—indeed, much of Llael entire—was designed for form as devoutly as function. Sharp spires, magnificent archways and flying buttresses, columns of marble and walls of rounded brick, festooned with wreaths and snapping banners, all meant to draw the eye as much as to repel the weather. Llaelese architecture was, for the most part, not merely a science but an art.
Then there was Thunderhead Fortress.
A fat, drab toad, the citadel squatted in the center of the rock garden that was Leryn. Blockish, ugly, short, heavy, and standing out like a troll in an elven finishing school, Thunderhead boasted a façade that not even an architect could love.
It was also the heart of Leryn's military power and, quite arguably, of scientific advancement throughout all of Western Immoren.
And would be guarded accordingly.
Nearer the fortress, the snow darkened from off-white to ugly gray, painted, polluted, and plagued by the thick fumes of the installation's many smokestacks. The faint crunching under Garland's feet transformed into a discomfiting squelch. Steadily, casually, she strode past Thunderhead Fortress, waving cheerfully to soldiers marching atop the wall or standing post in the recessed gateways.
A few nodded back. Most made no reply at all. But all watched with professional vigilance until she'd passed them by.
As she'd heard, then. The Crucible Guard were not to be taken lightly.
Officially, these men and women were a security force loyal to the Golden Crucible, protecting the alchemists and their works, at home or abroad. Unofficially, albeit quite openly, they were Leryn's private army. When Khador had advanced beyond Llael's borders, when their hidden operatives assassinated most of the local mages—including a few of the nation's already scarce war-casters—the Crucible Guard became one of the final hopes of the nation entire.
On the one hand, then, she needn't deal with very many of them; not when the bulk of their forces were deployed across the city or at the front, their explosive elixirs and expertly engineered firearms scattering the enemy like toys, their alchemical tinctures bringing relief to the wounded. On the other, those who did remain, standing sentinel for the heart of the Golden Crucible, were far more formidable than the average watchman.
She saw rifles and other long guns above, heavy armor and seemingly heavier pistols below; and those were only the visible accoutrements. Morrow alone knew how many hidden blades they might have stashed, or what sorts of herbs and elixirs might keep them swift and alert after long hours of vigil. No, these Crucible Guard were prepared to repel a small army, let alone a single intruder.
Then again, armies are a bit rubbish at sneaking, aren't they?
Several streets from the fortress, Garland ducked into a narrow throughway. In defiance of the cold, she unlaced her bodice and stepped out of her gown. The flimsy silken blouse thus exposed was to be expected; the trousers of lightweight, rust-brown canvas rather less so.
Next she delved into the heap of fabric that had, a moment before, been the skirts of her gown. From one of several large pockets sewn within, she drew tunic, gloves, and soft boots of that same canvas, and slipped them on. From a second, she removed two tiny ceramic vials. Finally, she wadded the skirt into a rough bundle and turned the fox-fur stole inside out to reveal a coarse woven backing. After checking to make certain she knew which vial was which—wouldn't do at all to get those confused!—she settled down, hunched in the shadows of the alley.
Now it was just a matter of waiting. Hopefully not for too long; it was bloody freezing out here!
* * *
Caje hated the midnight delivery.
Yeah, yeah, he understood why it was necessary. Thunderhead was the greatest producer of blasting powder in Western Immoren, and now Llael was at war, that portion of the operation ran day and night. At any hour of the clock, wagons of refined powder trundled out, other wagons of red powder, black powder, and various components clattered in. All absolutely necessary.
He understood all that. He really did.
But why the hell am I always the guy stuck making it?
The frosty conditions and long hours must have weighed on the young driver even worse than usual tonight. He'd halted, briefly, to let Dondy and Nosli catch their breath, shake the snow from their manes and tails and dappled coats—and had fallen asleep, Morrow help him!
It had only been for a few minutes—he could tell by the powdery accumulation on the seat beside him, and on the canvas tarp covering the wagonload of unprocessed Rynyr Red powder—but that was a few minutes too long. He could lose his position if the Crucible found out; hell, he might even face charges! The malodorous mineral, once refined, was a vital component of blasting powder—which technically made every delivery, no matter how routine and mundane, a military matter. If anyone had caught him, if the backstreets weren't so empty this late at night ...
"Yah!" A quick snap of the reins, followed by two longsuffering equine snorts from Dondy and Nosli, and the wagon resumed rattling and clumping over snow-dusted pavers.
At the portcullis of alchemically-hardened iron, he was met by two men in ornate armor and armed with locharns—brutal pole-arms with a long slashing blade at one end, a heavy bludgeon on the other. The armor's gothic inlays, and the brightly-dyed fabric that concealed the mail at the joints, might have fooled some into believing it—and the guards—purely ceremonial.
Ceremonial. Right. Caje knew a whole lot better.
"Factory delivery," he announced, hoping they'd take the heaviness in his words for boredom rather than lingering traces of sleep. As always, the guards studied him unflinchingly from broad-visored helms and demanded a sequence of pass-phrases, all of which he dutifully offered.
Excerpted from IN THUNDER FORGED: IRON KINGDOMS CHRONICLES by ARI MARMELL. Copyright © 2013 Privateer Press, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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