Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Mask of Night: Cold Iron part 1

Aurin hovers just above the endless stretch of ocean to the east, casting the city of Valtameri in tones of orange and yellow. No matter how many times I look at it, I cannot help but be transfixed by the beauty of the sunset. Perhaps I am just a hopeless romantic, or perhaps it is because I rarely see the sun during my waking hours. Either way, it is a sight to behold, and one that most people in this city take for granted.

For most of the people of Valtameri, the setting of Aurin is the end of their day. They go out in the morning, ply their trades or walk the streets while the star watches over them, and return to their homes by dusk. They sleep through the cold night, preparing their bodies and minds for the next day.

But for others, Aurin's descent is their cue to walk the streets, using the cloak of night to mask their dealings with others. The freelancers and petty criminals use the secrecy of the night to sustain themselves, without invoking the wrath of the Clans.

I step back into my apartment, and I prepare myself for the night ahead. Perhaps I would get more business if I also worked during the day. As it stands, I make enough money to sustain myself and my partner, with just enough to put away in case of an emergency. It's enough, yes, but it might be nice to be able to afford some luxuries now and again.

I slip on my uniform - a suit consisting of a shirt, vest, jacket and pants, all dark green and made of watersheep skin. I am not exactly a fan of dark green, but the water-resistant skin makes it somewhat difficult to dye by natural means. Even still, this suit is rather important to me: it is the first thing I was able to buy with my own money after opening up my business, and I had it specifically tailored for my needs. I suppose I could get by with something a bit simpler, but it adds an air of professionalism which I sorely lack most of the time.

It feels like it's going to be cool tonight, so I add fur gloves and moccasins to my normal ensemble, as well as my wide-brimmed hat. The hat is made of high-quality mist deerie leather, but unlike the suit, it was a gift from my mother. It's one of the few things I have left from my old life, and a reminder of why I'm in Valtameri in the first place.

But of course, my uniform isn't complete without my mask. I reach into a pocket in the inside of my jacket, and I pull out the key which unlocks a chest in the corner of my bedroom. As I pick up the mask, I feel the ancient magics within it.

Like the suit, this mask has quite a bit of sentimental value for me, though it has quite a bit of practical value as well. Not only does it hide my true identity, but it is enchanted with a spell that allows me to discern truth from lies. The third eye in the middle of the forehead gives off a faint red glow as I hold it in my hands, signifying that it is at full charge.

This mask is my trademark. When I wander the streets during the day, and I hear people talk about me, the mask is the first thing they note. I've even seen the local curiosity shops selling replicas, though most of the people buying them are smart enough not to put them on.

I place the mask near my face, and it affixes itself without any need for strings or adhesives. The mask's magic allows me to see and speak normally while wearing it, which I have heard unnerves some people. I pay it no mind.

One last thing. I reach back into the chest and remove two rings - one a simple gold band, the other charcoal-coloured with a small ruby set in it. I slip my left glove off and put the rings on my ring and index fingers, respectively, and I feel my body shift and distort as the rings take effect. The gold ring increases my height slightly, while the second changes my hair colour and style. Another precaution to hide my identity, though it's likely unnecessary.

Do I have enemies in Valtameri? Undoubtedly, though I doubt they would act against me even if they knew my true identity. Even the Clans, the ruling bodies of the city, leave me alone, though I suspect they would... how do they put it? "Off" me if I became too much of a burden. Though considering I had a major hand in taking down the Serra Clan (and they know it), I don't know what more I would have to do to draw their ire.

Now, my disguise is complete. I go by the name "Jone Tensar", and I am Valtameri's one and only information broker. I deal in the exchange of information, on people, items, history, anything. That's how I make most of my money, anyways. My primary interest is research; Valtameri has many secrets, most of which are unknown even to the Clans, and I attempt to uncover them in my spare time.

Valtameri is an old city, with a history spanning at least 2,000 years. The city is built around a fortress that extends back even farther, though how far is impossible to tell due to the magical wars. It's been ruled by many wizards, kingdoms, empires and dictators over the years, but at present, it and the outlying towns are a semi-neutral city-state - no less than three major countries lay claim to it, but the Clans keep them out. Or that's what they claim, at least. If any one of those countries invaded, the Clans would be powerless to stop them.

I put my glove back on, and I exit my apartment. A couple of older women wave to me as I step onto the streets, and I tip my hat to them. They squeal like schoolgirls and run off. Were they waiting for me? It's no secret that I live in this particular building, though I've never had a problem with people annoying me - if someone knocks at my door, I generally just ignore them, and I haven't yet been assaulted by thieves or assassins.

I suppose it makes a civilian identity pointless when everyone knows where I live, but I rarely walk around unmasked anyways. It's sometimes nice to walk the bright streets and feel the cool sea breeze on your bare skin, but I conduct all of my business with my mask, even in the daylight.

As Aurin sets, I take a chance to admire the apartment building where I live. The inner districts of Valtameri were mostly built by wizards, who used their magic to carve stone from the surrounding highlands and assemble them within the inner walls. Even after 2,000 years or more, the inner districts stand tall without decay, though only the richest denizens have the privilege of living here. I was lucky enough to land a fairly cheap apartment very close to the inner wall.

As I pass through one of the many gates of the inner wall, I enter the outer districts. These were assembled by hand, though the craftsmanship is still quite high out here. This is the middle-class zone, and the quality and space between buildings decreases as you get closer to the slums near the outer wall. Outside that is mostly farmland, though there's a few smaller towns controlled by the Clans nearby.

"Hello, stranger."

My musings are interrupted by a red-haired woman tapping me on the shoulder. She's dressed in a dark green jacket and skirt, also made of watersheep skin. The suit was a gift from me, though the boots, gloves and scarf (all fairly stylish, I will admit) look fairly new. Her hair is tied in a loose ponytail, and her bright blue eyes pierce through her reading glasses.

"Good evening, miss." I reply. This is Gwen Fiorces, my business partner and closest friend. I met her shortly after coming to Valtameri, and she helped me find a place to stay and open my business. I hired her as an assistant, but she does a lot of the paperwork and helps me out with contracts, so I promoted her to my full partner around a year ago. "So you came looking for me?"

"You were a bit late." she says.

"I'm an adult, I can handle myself." I say. "Or were you really that worried about me?"

"I don't have a key to the office, so I can't get in without you. You really should stop procrastinating and get me a key."

"Yes, I should." I've been meaning to do that for a while, but I don't seem to have the time anymore. And besides, she's lived in the slums of Valtameri for most of her life - if she really wanted in, she could probably pick the lock in a few seconds or less. "Admit it, you were worried about me."

"Only mildly." She's trying to hide it, but I can see the faintest hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.

As much as I tease her about it, I don't think she's romantically attracted to me. I'll be the first to admit that our relationship is a bit more than platonic, but we've never kissed or anything more than that. We're friends and partners, and I like to think that she's like a sister to me. I don't know how she feels, but as far as I know, she's never outright expressed attraction in anyone, so she might just be hiding it.

"What's that look on your face?" she asks.

"I'm wearing a mask, dear." I reply half-jokingly.

"Yes, but you're smiling about something." she says. I'm not sure how she can tell. Body language? She does have an uncanny ability to read people, though that might be tied in with her memory.

"Oh, it's nothing. I was just thinking how it'd be nice to have a day off once in a while." I say.

"I doubt that. You were probably thinking about throwing off your mask and trying to make out with me."

"The thought's crossed my mind once or twice."

"Of course it has." She's trying to conceal her smile again. "I distinctly remember you saying that you wanted to keep it professional."

"You might be remembering wrong."

"I doubt it." Gwen looks away for a moment, but I'm barely able to see her left eye twitching. She's recalling something. Did I really make her doubt her own memory, or is she just doing it to prove me wrong? Knowing her, it's probably the latter.

Everyone in Valtameri has a little bit of magical talent, some more than others. There are few trained wizards left, and even those who pour their entire life into researching spells just can't reach the same level as the terrifying mage-kings of old. Most of them prefer to use what little talent they have for mundane things, like farming or trades.

Gwen's talent involves her memory. She claims to be able to recall everything she's ever heard, seen or read in her entire life, and she's done more than enough to prove that to me. I vividly remember one time where she described her own birth in detail, though I can't remember why she brought that up; she was probably trying to prove a point of some sort. Or perhaps it was for a contract. My memory is fairly good, but she blows me out of the water by comparison.

"37 Eind 2142E, 14:32. The day after you opened up The Library." Gwen turned back to me, evidently remembering the day I'd told her that I wanted to keep our relationship professional. "It was cloudy and snowing a little bit, and we were eating lunch at SaiKar's. I had a watersheep steak, well-done, and you-"

"Okay, I get it." She was just going to keep rattling off details to prove her point. "I was just kidding about that. You know I wouldn't seriously doubt your memory, right?"

"I know. But it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside when I prove you wrong." She smiles again, for real this time. "So do you have any contracts tonight?"

"I didn't, but it looks like I might have one right now."

We come up to The Library, the office building we work out of. It's just a simple one-story house that we bought for cheap and renovated; the only indication that it's a business at all is a small marquee over the door. The sun has completely set by now, and the autolamps from Valtameri's old days all light up, illuminating the main streets; as they light up, I notice a dark-haired woman frantically pacing around The Library's door.

The woman notices us, and she runs over to us. "Oh, oh Gzir! Please, you need to help me!"

"What's wrong?" I ask, keeping my tone professional. The woman's hands and dress are covered in blood, and her hair is dishevelled and dirty. Based on her attire, she was getting ready for bed before coming here.

"My husband! Please Mr. Tensar, please..."

"Is your husband hurt?" Gwen asks.

"He's, oh great Gzir, he's..." The woman drops to her knees and starts sobbing uncontrollably. "He's dead! Someone snuck into our house and killed him!"

"Dead?" I inquire. "I'm sorry miss, but I'm not a Med."

"No, it's too late..." she mutters between sobs. "Please, I'll pay you anything. I want, I want you to find who killed him..."

I would tell her that I'm not a detective or the police, but I just don't have the heart to refuse her.

"Alright." I reach down, and the woman grabs my hand. "Where do you live?"

"It's just a few blocks from here." The woman grabs a handkerchief from her pocket and dabs at her eyes. She's still crying, but she seems to have calmed down a bit. I suppose I can't blame her for coming to me; she could try and go to the Clans, but to be perfectly honest, they're probably responsible for killing him. It's been less of an issue since the Serras were disbanded, but the Clans still feel the need to make an example of people who don't agree with their rule.

I notice Gwen giving me a quizzical look. She knows I generally don't take contracts like this, but she has enough tact not to ask me at this particular moment. Instead, she turns to the woman.

"You're Raima Sepper, correct? Ilmari's wife?" she asks.

"Y, yes, that's right." Raima says. The name 'Ilmari Sepper' sounds vaguely familiar; I've never dealt with him personally, but I'm sure I've heard his name more than a few times. "I don't know who would want him dead! We've never done anything to the Clans!"

I feel a dull burning sensation behind my left eye for a few moments, followed by two bright blue runes appearing on the back of Raima's head. The rune is Old Humantongue, the language the old wizards used for their incantations, roughly translating to 'not true'. The runes aren't actually there; they're a projection from my mask, telling me that she's not being entirely truthful. My mask can tell between three strengths of lies; 'not true' is the weakest, meaning she knows more about her husband's murder, but she may not even realize it.

"Are you sure?" I ask. Even if she doesn't know much, anything I might be able to glean from her could be useful. "Was your husband dealing with anyone shady?"

"I, I don't remember." Raima says. "He works out of his shop during the day, and he sells to so many people..."

The 'not true' runes vanish from the back of Raima's head, and they're replaced by a green rune that means 'lie'. She definitely knows more, but I don't want to seriously interrogate her just yet - she's doing her best to hold herself together, but her husband was just murdered, and I doubt she's in much of a frame of mind to properly answer questions.

We walk up to a house, and Raima unlocks the back door. As she opens it, I'm overwhelmed by the sick stench of death - I drop to my knees, coughing and sputtering. Gwen dry-heaves a few times, and Raima bursts into tears again.

Collecting myself, I get up and observe the scene to the best of my ability. The back door leads to a porch of sorts, containing various coats, hats and shoes, though most of them have been knocked to the ground. In the middle of the porch, sitting in a pool of blood and waste, is the dead body of Ilmari Sepper, staring blankly at the ceiling. His arms have been dismembered and hacked into several pieces each, and the wounds along his abdomen have exposed his viscera to the cold night air. His face is frozen in an expression, but not of fear - it's more of sadness, of realizing that he was not long for this world.

It takes all of my resolve to look at the scene for just that long. I can't bear it anymore. I duck behind the house, remove my mask and vomit in the back alley. I didn't even have anything to eat before leaving my apartment; my body just has the physical need to expel the contents of my stomach after witnessing that.

After about a minute, I feel Gwen's warm hands on the back of my shoulders. I wipe my mouth on the sleeve of my shirt, slip my mask back on and get up, doing my best to look dignified.

"Are you alright?" she asks.

"Yeah. I'm fine." I say, though I doubt she believes me. "I just, I-"

Without warning, Gwen embraces me, holding me tightly between her arms and chest. I didn't realize how cold I was, but her body instantly warms and relaxes me. I uneasily reach behind her and pat her on the shoulders, causing her to let go. We stand there in silence for a few moments.

"Thank you." I say. "I needed that."

"Me too." she admits. "Are you going to be okay? We don't need to take this contract if it-"

"It's fine." I say. "I don't think my conscience would let me leave this without at least trying to figure it out."

We both step back into the porch. The initial shock of Sepper's corpse has passed; my stomach is still turning, but I'm able to at least bear looking at the scene. Raima is long gone, though I can hear her loudly wailing somewhere above us.

"His arms have been severed." I note, trying to sound as professional as I can. There's still a slight waver in my voice, but that's to be expected. "And... it looks like they were cut into several pieces. The Clans prefer decapitations, don't they?"

"They do." Gwen says. She seems less affected than I am, though that's to be expected; she grew up on the streets, where she probably saw plenty of murders. Not that I haven't seen dead bodies or even murders before, but never this brutal - the Clans aren't prone to this degree of violence.

I look at the dismembered arms again. In particular, his hands and fingers have been mutilated, so much that I can barely recognize them. The cuts on the arms look strangely clean, with little tearing or ripping of the flesh or muscles - almost like they were done in a single stroke.

"Look at the arms." I say. "The cuts look very clean, don't they?"

"Yes, I noticed that too." Gwen slips off her fur boots and slips on a nearby pair of watersheep shoes, and wades into the bloody mess. She picks up two pieces of the arm and holds them together; sure enough, the two easily fit together, with barely a seam in between. She sets the arms down and inspects the torso for a moment.

"You're braver than me." I say.

"I've seen murders like this before." she says. She removes her gloves and kneels down, closely looking at the wounds on Sepper's abdomen. "It's symbolic. He works with his hands, so the killer mutilated them, likely while he was still alive. Then the killer cut open his stomach, so that Sepper would die slowly and in extreme pain."

"How horrible."

"Yes." She gets up and walks over to me, stepping out of the blood-soaked shoes. "The cuts are all incredibly clean, which likely means the weapon was either very sharp, or the killer was very strong. Likely a combination of both."

"Excuse me." Raima peeks into the porch from the back door. Her eyes are red and swollen, and her voice is little more than a squeaky whisper. "I'm making some tea. Please, come to the kitchen."

We step out of the porch, leaving the grisly scene behind. My clothing still reeks of death. I hope I can wash it out. We walk around the side of the house, step through the front door and into an old-looking kitchen. A black kettle noisily bubbles away on top of a wood stove, and the smell of sweet mint and fruit washes away the foul stench of death.

Raima grabs the kettle and pours it into three fancy-looking white teacups on a metal table, surrounded by wooden seats. In the middle of the table is a tray of fruit and dainties, though just looking at them makes me feel queasy. Gwen and I take a seat around the table.

"Would you like anything else?" Raima asks. She's definitely calmed down, though her lip's still quivering. "If you're hungry, I can fix some food."

"No, that's quite alright." I say.

"I'm fine as well." Gwen says. She picks up the teacup and gingerly sips it. "Redmint and curce. This is Tero's special blend, is it not?"

"Yes, that's right." Raima takes a seat, opposite from us. "It was Ilmari's favourite... oh Gzir, he's dead..."

"It's alright." Gwen says. "Based on our initial impressions, he wasn't killed by the Clans. You should be able to go to them for arbitration."

Raima looks into her teacup. "The Clans. I, I'm sorry. I know I'm being selfish, but if it's okay with you, I'd like for you to look into it before I go to the Clans."

That brings up a warning flag for me. Is she reluctant to go to the Clans for some reason? She definitely knows more about them than she's letting on, but on the other hand, the Clans' so-called "arbitration" usually just consists of pummelling a random criminal that may or may not have anything to do with the crime and giving her a few coins, if anything, as payment. I can understand why she'd want us to look into it for her, but I highly doubt I'll be able to do much.

"I know it's difficult, but I need you to answer a question for me." I say. I really don't want to have to ask her this, but I need to know. "Was your husband directly involved with the Clans in any way?"

"He, he sold them weapons and tools. He gave them a special discount, but... I overheard one of them one day, they said they wanted to reduce the price, and he refused."

"I see." Gwen noted. "Even still, they aren't that petty. They'd probably just stop buying from him, or at the worst rough him up a bit. Even the Serras in their heyday wouldn't have killed him, especially not like... that."

"I know, but... I trust you two more than the Clans. Wait, I suppose..." Raima gets up. "I'll need to pay you. How much will it cost?"

"I'll take a down payment of 200 Val." I say. "We'll discuss the rest of the fee once I learn more."

"I see... Two hundred. Excuse me for a minute." Raima steps out of the kitchen and runs upstairs.

"That doesn't seem unreasonable, does it?" I ask Gwen.

"No, that's standard. And from what I understand, Ilmari made quite a bit of money, so it shouldn't be a problem for her..." Gwen says.

"Speaking of which, refresh my memory a bit. Who exactly is Ilmari Sepper?"

Gwen's left eye twitches. "Ilmari Sepper. 48 years old, native of Valtameri. He's worked as a metalsmith for 30 years, opening his business, Sepperworks, in Iind 2128E. He's noted for the exceptional quality of his work, primarily weapons and tools. They're made of Valta steel, but his secret forging process results in weapons that keep their edge far longer than most other smiths."

"Secret forging process, huh?" I say. Technically, most metalsmiths keep their exact forging processes secret, don't they? I don't suppose it matters. "Does he have any apprentices?"

"Yes. He has three sons, all of whom are metalsmiths, but none of them work or live in Valtameri."

"Okay. Any noted enemies?"

"Not that I know of."

"Hmm." Sepper's not the only smith in town, so I suppose one of them could have tried to get his 'secret forging process' out of him and killed him when he wouldn't spill the beans. "Hang on. You said Sepper's weapons are high-quality, right? That probably means they have a very sharp edge."

Before Gwen can answer, we hear Raima coming down the stairs. She's holding a shiny black scabbard, around 75cm in length, and with a strangely-shaped crossguard and hilt. She walks right over to me and hands it to me.

"This is Ilmari's greatest work. I'm sorry, but I don't have 200 Val on me, but this sword should be worth more than that."

I take the scabbard and draw the blade. It's impressively shiny, almost seeming like it possesses its own inner light, and it's almost weightless in my hand. The blade is steel, polished to such a degree that it looks like white silver, with edges that could cut at a glance. Each of the four prongs on the crossguard curves upward, and the pommel is set with a glass sphere, blue as the ocean. It's no ordinary sword... it almost seems magical in a way.

"I'm no metalsmith, but this sword is worth much more than 200 Val." I say, sheathing the blade and handing it back to Raima. "And it is your husband's. I can't accept this as payment, out of good faith."

"No, I insist." Raima smiles weakly. "We owe so much to you, Mr. Tensar. Before you came, Ilmari and I were terrorized by the Serras every day. They would come in to his forge, physically abuse him and steal his works, and maybe throw us a few coins every month. But when you took them down, it helped everyone, and we never got to pay you back... Ilmari would have wanted you to have this, I'm sure of it."

"...Thank you." I retake the sword from her. I can't exactly say no to her after that, can I? I reach into one of my inner pockets and pull out a small slip of paper with a black spot on it, and I hand it to Raima. "The blot on this paper will turn red when I find out more information about your husband's murder. Keep it on you, and when it turns red, meet me at my office when it is convenient."

"I will. Thank you so much, Mr. Tensar."

"You're welcome." Gwen and I get up from the table; I never had a chance to try any of Raima's tea, though I can't exactly drink it with a mask on. "Also, this sword will cover the entire rate. I promise to you that I will not let Ilmari down."

Raima smiles as we leave, though I can see tears running down her cheeks. She looks like she'll be okay, though I suspect she'll need some time to mourn. I would have offered to stay there and help her, but I know from experience that sometimes, you just want to be alone.

"That's a rather unusual contract, even for you." Gwen remarks. "Although, you've never been much of a broker in the first place."

"'Information broker' wasn't my first choice of title." I say. "But of course, you objected to 'information mercenary' and 'book hunter.'"

"I suggested that last one as a joke." she says. "You weren't seriously thinking about calling yourself 'Jone Tensar, the Book Hunter', were you?"

"Well, no, not really."

"It's too bad that mask doesn't prevent you from telling lies." She smiles again. It's so nice to see her smile; she's always so blank and dour, and it can be pretty hard to read her if you're not experienced in the ways of Gwen. I've had plenty of experience, but even still, she hides her thoughts well.

I sling the sword over my back, and I practice quick-drawing it a couple of times. The bright blade gleams in the light of the autolamps, reflecting and intensifying their rather paltry glow into a full-on dazzling ray. The autolamps draw energy from the sun during the day and release it at night, so they don't charge up very well on cloudy days; and since we're near the coast, we get plenty of those.

"You really shouldn't be waving that thing around." Gwen says. "You're going to hurt yourself."

"I did a bit of fencing in school, actually." I assume a proper fencing stance (or what I remember of a proper fencing stance, at the least) and playfully jab at Gwen a few times. She doesn't look impressed.

"Correction: you're going to hurt me. Or you'll attract a criminal, and with your reputation, I doubt the Clans would do a single thing about it."

"Reputation? I don't know what you're talking about, my dear. Clearly, everyone loves me."

She doesn't even bother rebutting that one; she just sighs and keeps on walking. She's probably right, though; if I went to the Clans for arbitration, they'd probably just point and laugh at me, then go and mug the freelancer and keep whatever he stole from me, just to spite me.

When I first started The Library six years ago, the Serra Clan was already corrupt. They were the thugs, the enforcers, the replacement for the police they ran out a few decades ago, but they'd degenerated into a band of petty thieves and murderers. Even the other Clans were disgusted by their actions, though they didn't want to risk an all-out war for fear of showing weakness to the populace.

So I received a contract from a "mysterious source" that gave me a few hints about the Serra Clan's hideout, and a hefty sum to investigate a rumour they'd heard about the Clan's matriarch. I was more than happy to take the contract for two reasons: I was new at the time, so I was barely making enough money to support us, and I too hated the Serras, since they'd done their best to ruin any contracts even tangentially related to the Clans I received.

I started off by doing some research on their genealogies. The Clans pride themselves on their inner families, and marriages are always a big deal; so, of course, when I looked through the records, I learned that neither of Nan Serra's sons had had public marriages. Their family tree listed wives for both of them, but not only had these women never lived or even existed, when I spoke to the editor of the Valta Times, he admitted that the Serras had coerced him into printing fake articles announcing both the marriages, and deaths, of the nonexistent women.

I'd had my suspicions at that point, but it was only exacerbated when I learned that Nan hadn't made any public appearances in the months before and after the fake marriages. And sure enough, the birth dates of her grandkids matched up with these dates. It was well known that Nan was borderline psychotic and physically abusive to her sons, but I never expected her to be sexually abusive as well.

Wyo Serra, one of her sons, confronted me about it. He all but admitted that she'd sexually abused both of them throughout their entire life, and that the twins were either his or his brother's. When word got out, the other Clans decided it was the last straw; they have a very strict policy about sexual assault, so when it was revealed what she'd done, they enacted retribution. The remaining five Clans killed over half of the Serra Clan, and the other half fled Valtameri for greener pastures. A lucky few were absorbed into the other Clans, including the two sons (Wyo, I believe, is a higher-up in the Atrous Clan now).

I never did find out who the "mysterious source" was. I'm positive that it was someone in the Clans, but I wouldn't doubt if it was Wyo himself who sent me it. And to be honest, I didn't do all that much; everything was public, and I just connected the dots. But the papers still heralded me as the one who defeated the Serras, which earned me no love from the other Clans.

Nowadays, I try and stay away from contracts involving the Clans, though I will admit to taking one or two here and there.

Once again, Gwen interrupts my thoughts by motioning for Ilmari's sword. I hand it to her, and she carefully examines the blade in the light; she seems most interested in the blue glass in the pommel, and I notice her left eye twitching a few times here and there.

"This sword is magical." she says after a full minute of examination. "But it's not like the other artifacts you've recovered. It lacks... a quality that I can't describe."

"So that's his secret, huh? Using magic to forge his tools?" I say. "But where'd he learn how to do that?"

"I don't know. It could have been an innate talent, or perhaps he learned it from an outside source." She hands the sword back to me, and I sheath it. "I recall hearing that he trained with astric smiths for a few years."

"I've never heard of astrics who can forge magic items. Even the best of them say it's a lost art, unless they're just holding out on us."

"They might, but if they were, they wouldn't permit a human to flaunt their secrets so readily." The low autolamp light casts her face in shadows, but I can see her frowning. She's trying to come up with something that would make sense, but she can't, and that frustrates her.

On second thought... I unsheathe the sword again, and I look into it. Sensing magic is something anyone can do with a bit of training, and I've been around enough artifacts to recognize magic when I see it. But Gwen's right, this thing lacks... magic, somehow. There's magic in it, but not enough for a valid enchantment.

"Capable." Gwen blurts out. "It's a capable weapon. Helkema's 4th Ballad, lines 21-24: 'Using fire and earth/and with souls given form/drinking talent like water/weapons capable of true death.' Interpretations suggest that these so-called 'capable weapons' are precursors to true magic items, and they are properly enchanted once they absorb enough magic."

"Quite interesting." I point the sword at one of the autolamps, but it doesn't seem to absorb the magic at all. Not that I could properly enchant it, even it was filled to the brim with magic, but that's one of the few old arts that hasn't been lost. It's rare, sure, but if I find myself near an old wizard, it might be an idea to take this.

"The ballad suggests that it can only absorb magic by killing others with it." Gwen says, noticing my attempts to 'drink' the light from the autolamps. "Your mask has a limited charge, correct?"

"It does, but it recharges itself during the day. This sword doesn't feel like it has any charge at all, and based on how Raima was talking about it, it's at least a year old if not more."

I sheath the sword as we come up to The Library. I reach into another one of my jacket's inner pockets and pull out the key, and the much brighter autolamps inside burst to life as we step in.

The front office is relatively sparse, with only Gwen's desk and a few chairs filling up space. There's a couple of cabinets behind the desk, a bookcase close to bursting with various tomes off to the side, and a potted redmint tree on a windowsill. The sweet and spicy scent of a burst redmint pod wafts through the office, reminding me once again that I still smell like death.

Gwen walks over to the windowsill and starts picking up the redmint seeds, which are scattered all along the floor. Neither of us are particularly adept at growing plants, but redmint is fairly hands-off, and Gwen doesn't like buying it if she can avoid it. While she's busy with that, I take off my boots, and set Ilmari's sword to the side.

After setting my boots down, I realize that we never did an actual test of the sword's sharpness. I grab the scabbard and draw it, once again admiring the polished blade. Polished. And impeccably clean, too. It may be a magical sword, but it would still get dirty, right?

I remove one of my gloves, and I ever-so-carefully run the tip of my index finger along the inward edge. Sure enough, the blade easily cuts through my skin, leaving a trail of blood along the edge... which immediately disappears, as if the blade sucked it up. I set the blade down, and I run my cut finger along the flat of the sword. Once again, the trail of blood evaporates, leaving the sword pristine as ever.

"Could you throw me one of those redmint seeds?" I ask.

"For what?" Gwen turns around, noticing me on the ground and holding my finger to the sword. "What are you doing?"

"Testing. Throw a seed at me."

Gwen throws one of the seeds at me, and I catch it with my other hand. I press the small seed against the flat of the blade, leaving a streak of dark-red fluid and plant matter on the blade. Unlike the blood, the crushed seed remains.

"Is that a successful test or not?" Gwen asks, looking over my shoulder.

"Maybe." I press my bloody fingertip on the blade again, which hungrily sucks up the blood. When I remove it, there's no blood left, which seems to surprise Gwen.

"So it absorbs blood?" she notes. "Then, it could be the murder weapon."

"Perhaps. My mask picked up a couple of lies from Raima, but neither of them seemed big enough to be covering for Ilmari's murder. I'd rather say that he forged more than one of these weapons, and someone took one and murdered him."

"But Ilmari was left in a pool of blood. If they were concerned about absorbing magic, they would have drained as much of that blood as they could, no?"

"...I think we read too many mystery novels." I chuckle. "It's not like all of his works are 'capable', right?"

"No, likely not. But you said you picked up some lies from Raima? Why didn't you question her further?"

"I didn't want to stress her further. She already lost her husband, and she didn't really seem like she was ready to answer questions about how exactly he died." I get to my feet, using the sword to prop myself up, but the tip of the blade cuts right through the carpet, the floor and the ground beneath it.

"It's certainly sharp enough to cut through a man in a single slice." Gwen says, grabbing my hand and helping me up. I grab the hilt and pull it out of the ground, leaving a gash in the floor.

"No kidding." I hold the blade up even with my eyes, and I note that, even with the miniscule amount of blood I gave it, it feels more... full of magic, or whatever it's absorbing. "Looks like I have a lead, at least. I just need to find someone who's wielding one of these swords, but with more magic power."

"And of course, you're going to leave me here to do paperwork while you're patrolling the streets." she says.

"You're always welcome to come with me."

"No, I'm fine. After tonight, I don't particularly feel like doing field work, and I need to finish filing the last few contracts you did." She goes back to picking up the redmint seeds, setting them aside in a glass jar. I don't even know why she needs to file them in the first place; I rarely look at the paper copies, and even if I need details from an older contract or records of a magic item, I generally just ask her. I guess it's nice to have in case she's not around, but I think she just does it to keep herself occupied.

"Alright then. I'll see you later." I wave to her as I exit The Library, and step back onto the streets of Valtameri. It looks like there's a storm rolling in from the coast, and I don't particularly want to be caught in that, so I'd best make this quick.

About 5 blocks to the south of The Library, and tucked away in a back alley, is an old tavern called Quill's Maw. It's a meeting place for the folks like me, who prefer to do their business during the night: freelance criminals, black-market traders, foreigners and the like. Of course, the proprietor has a very strict policy about "deals" in his tavern - for the most part, it's just a general meeting place for these types, and they do their work elsewhere.

The smell of fine food and drink pulls me in as I open the old wooden door to the Maw. I've come here often in the past, and I owe the tavern regulars quite a lot for helping me with my various contracts; I've donated quite a bit of my money to the Maw in return, and thus, though the exterior's a bit shabby, the inside is lavishly-furnished, with top-quality wood tables and chairs, exotic brews and a couple of billiard tables in the back. It's still not as fancy as the Clans' hangouts in the inner districts, but it's more homely.

An uproarious cheer bellows from the tavern of the Maw as I step in, and the various patrons all call my name and greet me. I sheepishly wave to everyone as I walk through the main aisle and take a seat at the bar.

"Ey, Tensar! How goes it, buddy!" The proprietor of the Maw greets me. His name is Oskar, and he's a beast of a man whose chin is higher than the top of my hat with a width to match. He's the kind of person who doesn't just physically dominate a scene, but he's also the life of the party wherever he goes - he almost always has a huge grin on his face, and due to his profession, he knows pretty much everyone in Valtameri, even most of the Clans. Rumour has it that he has some astric blood in him somewhere down the line, though I highly doubt that, considering that the astrics can't breed with humans.

"Hello, Oskar." I say. "I'm on the job tonight."

"Yep, figgered as much!" Oskar chortles. He waves to one of the waitresses, who walks over the bar. "Get one o' those bottles of Cherry from the back cellar, would ya love?"

"Okay, Daddy!" The waitress, evidently Oskar's daughter Red, runs off into the back.

"I just got this new stuff in last night! They call it Cherry, and I wanted ta crack it with ya." Oskar says. "Interested?"

"Cherry? What an odd name." I remark. Of course, he knows just as well as I do that I can't drink with my mask on, and I generally don't remove it in crowded areas, but he's just doing it out of courtesy.

"Yeah, no kiddin. Some exotic flavour from across the sea or somethin. So anyways, what's the contract tonight?"

"Do you know a man named Ilmari Sepper? He's a local blacksmith."

"Ilmari? Course I do! We grew up together, he's like my brother! How's that old bugger doin?"

"...I'm sorry. He was murdered a few hours ago."

Oskar's wide grin instantly disappears. He puts his massive hands on the countertop, bracing himself from the shock.

"...No kiddin?" he mutters.

"Yes. Someone broke into his house and mutilated his arms, and left him to die painfully."

"By Gzir." Oskar takes a moment to collect himself; I don't see any tears, but he's probably just saving them for a more private area.

"EY, LISTEN UP!" He grabs a glass mug and bangs it on the countertop, instantly silencing the din of the tavern. "Tensar here tells me that we lost a good man today. Ilmari Sepper, the blacksmith. Says he was murdered."

The patrons all bow their heads and close their eyes, muttering the traditional prayer to Gzir to ensure his soul reaches the Embrace of the Gods. I'm not particularly religious, but I whisper the prayer along with them. It just seems like the right thing to do.

"Good! Now, drain your mugs for im!" Oskar orders. The patrons obediently clink their bottles and mugs together, and polish off whatever brew they were drinking before. The noise level returns to normal, but it seems more subdued than before.

Red comes back from the cellar, holding two glass bottles each filled with a strange red liquid. She hands one to me and the other to Oskar, and we clink the bottles together. Oskar pulls out a corkscrew and opens his bottle, releasing a very sweet aroma with a hint of sour, and something else that I can't quite identify.

Oskar takes my bottle and hands me his open one. Well, it's for Ilmari... I lift the bottom of my mask up, and I bring the bottle to my lips. The Cherry brew tastes exactly like it smells, but the unknown flavouring is clearer; it tastes like curce, or perhaps peppermint. An odd combination, but strangely delicious. Oskar drains his entire bottle in a single gulp, letting out a satisfied sigh once he's done.

"Good, eh?" he asks.

"Different." I say. "It's from overseas?"

"Yeah, somethin like that. I dunno exactly where, but I'm definitely thinkin I'll buy some more." Oskar sets down the empty bottle. "So, about Ilmari. Any idea who offed im?"

"I don't think it was the Clans. His arms were chopped off, his hands were mutilated, and the stomach wounds don't fit their style." I unsheathe Ilmari's sword; the gleaming silver blade instantly catches everyone's attention.

While everyone's looking at me, I might as well take the opportunity to gather information. I get up off the stool and turn to the assembled patrons. "Hello, everyone. As Oskar just said, Ilmari Sepper was killed a short time ago, and based on my information, he was killed by a freelancer. I think a sword like this might also be involved, so if anyone has any information, I'd be very appreciative if you came forward."

Nobody initially comes forward, so I sit back down. My mask doesn't register any lies among the whispers of the tavern, but it doesn't tend to work in the presence of large groups, which is one reason I generally stay away from them. No matter. I highly doubt I'll learn anything about the murder tonight; but as long as they know I'm looking for information, someone will come to me eventually.

"That's one of Ilmari's swords?" Oskar asks, looking at the scabbard draped over my shoulder. "It's a fine-lookin one too. Must be one of his best works."

"Yes, it is. Gwen and I believe that it might even be magical."

"Magical, huh? That bastard, I knew he was cheatin somehow!" Oskar chuckles a bit. "So what? Someone broke into his house to steal a magical sword, and they ended up killin him on the way out?"

"To be honest, it doesn't make much sense." I admit. "Ilmari was left in a pool of his own blood, but I did an experiment with this one, and it seems to absorb blood to gain power. But at the same time, the wounds were too clean to be inflicted by a normal weapon."

"Well, if it helps at all, Ilmari had a pretty good deal with the Clans. He made all sorts of weapons for em." he says. "But his work was pretty expensive. I doubt anyone besides the Clans could afford a weapon like that."

"Or someone else..." I remember seeing the 'lie' rune on Raima's head when I asked her about his dealings. She would have no reason to lie about him selling weapons to the Clans, but what if he was selling weapons to someone outside of Valtameri?

"You know, I can't see your face, but damn if you don't look like you just had a breakthrough." Oskar remarks.

"Kind of." I say. "This is just speculation, but what if he was selling weapons to an outside source that planned on using them against the Clans? And someone found out, so they killed him?"

"Well... I couldn't blame em for wanting to get rid of the Clans." Oskar whispers, making sure that only I can hear him. "The Serras, they did some pretty terrible things to him. And even with them gone, that kind of hatred doesn't just go away, it gets redirected."

"Yes, but... who was he selling to?"

The bar is temporarily silenced by a loud thundercrack, followed by pouring rain. So that storm's finally rolled in.

"I should get going. Thank you for the help, Oskar."

"Don't be a stranger!"

I tip my hat to everyone as I exit the bar. The rain's coming down hard, but fortunately, it's only a quick walk back to The Library.

It's not a foolproof theory, but it seems to make sense. Ilmari was selling weapons to an outside source, probably one that the Clans disapprove of. A military power, perhaps? Was he in cahoots with Acuira or Freco, giving them unique weapons as motivation to invade Valtameri and dispose of the Clans?

But then, who killed him? The Clans have a very specific way of offing those who have wronged them - they decapitate their victims, and leave the body face-down while keeping the heads. But if it was a foreign power who killed him, why would they do it? Presumably, they would still want his expertise in making weapons, right?

None of this is making sense, and I somehow doubt that it ever will. I'm still obligated by my contract to find out as much as I can, but-

A huge hand clasps my shoulder. I spin around to see Thordain Varkas, one of the top brass in the Varkas Clan, looking right at me.

"Hello, Tensar." Thordain says. His voice is rough and throaty, and his breath smells of foul smoke. He brushes a lock of green hair out of his face; the Varkas inner family uses green hair dye as a status symbol, while the lesser members wear green hats or hairclips. I don't claim to get it, but it at least makes them distinctive.

"Greetings, Mr. Varkas." I say nervously. Thordain is built like Oskar, but unlike Oskar, Thordain's all too willing to throw his weight around when necessary; I try my best to stay in shape, but even with Ilmari's sword, I doubt I could take him in a fight. Plus, I can see a few flunkies hanging back, and there's no way I could take all of them out.

"The boys at the Maw told me you were looking into a murder." he says. "Ilmari Sepper, the blacksmith, right?"

"That's correct. His widow contracted me to find out who killed him."

"Yes, I heard." Thordain grabs the collar of my vest and lifts me up. "You do realize that arbitration is part of the Clans' function, do you not?"

"Yes, but Raima-"

Thordain drops me on the ground. "You know, my father and the rest of the Clan leaders like you for some reason. I have no idea why. You snoop around, helping the people of Valtameri for money, when we do it for free. Plus, there was that business with the Serras a few years ago. I lost several friends during the raid, and I still believe you instigated that."

"I didn't, I-"

"Shut up." Thordain's boot lands squarely in my chest, knocking me over and probably bruising a couple of my ribs. "We'll handle the arbitration. Don't let me catch you poking your head in Clan business again, or I might temporarily forget my father said not to off you."

Thordain and his goons walk off, and I get to my feet, panting and holding my chest. I can't tell if I'm bleeding or not; my entire body feels numb, except for the sharp, throbbing pain in my torso. I limp over to a nearby house, and I slowly stumble back to The Library while practically hugging the wall.

"Are you okay?" Gwen questions as I stumble in.

"Roughed up by Thordain." I sputter breathlessly as I fumble with my boots. Gwen gets up and runs over to me, grabbing me before I collapse. My vision's blurry, but I'm still conscious... somehow.

"Oh. Well, you're lucky that you're still in one piece."

Gwen helps me into my personal office, which is even sparser than the front area; it does, however, have a couch in the corner. She props me up on the couch and starts taking my jacket off.

"Not tonight dear, I have a headache." I joke.

"Get your mind out of the gutter. And take off your mask." Gwen orders. I'm barely able to think straight, but I obediently remove my mask and throw it to the side. She knows what I really look like, but even if I didn't, I'm in no state to argue. She takes my vest off and rips my shirt open, exposing the chest wraps I wear underneath. "And take those rings off. I don't know how you can bear to wear those."

"It doesn't hurt after the first few times." I protest, but she takes off my left glove. The rings are magically bound to my person, so no one can remove them but me; I reach over with my trembling right arm and slip the rings off, dropping them on the ground.

The change is painless, but still feels uncomfortable. I lose a few inches in height, my shoulders shrink while my hips expand, and the malformed lumps of flesh on my chest fill out a bit more, breaking a few of the chest wraps. They don't disappear completely, even with the rings, hence why I need the wraps to pass as somewhat masculine. But even with the rings, it's only barely enough; I'm sure there's people out there who suspect I'm actually a woman.

And really, what better way to disguise oneself than as the opposite gender? I can walk around during the day in long, flowing dresses and robes, obscuring my hideous body from the public. And at night, I use those rings to make my form more masculine, at least enough to pass as "Mr. Jone Tensar". Even with seven years of living as a woman under my metaphorical belt, I still prefer being addressed as male, though it is somewhat easier to pass as female.

Gwen feels around my chest, and I gasp in pain as she applies pressure to the place where Thordain kicked me.

"Stop, it hurts." I weakly complain.

"There doesn't appear to be any internal bleeding, but a couple of your ribs are definitely bruised." Gwen says. "How much does it hurt when you breathe?"

"A bit."

"Okay, so it's not too bad." She grabs the last of my chest wraps and turns them into impromptu bandages, wrapping them tightly around my ribcage. She runs over to her little redmint tree and grabs a few of the fresh seeds, as well as a few of the leaves from the branches, and brings them over.

"The leaves will help with the inflammation. The seeds will dull the taste."

"I'm not completely ig-mmmph." She shoves the leaves and seeds in my mouth as I'm talking, and the extremely bitter taste of the leaves hits me like a fist. The sweet and spicy seed juice helps a bit, but it's still extremely unpleasant. I am aware of redmint leaves' medical applications, though I've been fortunate enough to not have to experience them firsthand.

I've injured myself on the job before, but never because of the Clans. I broke a couple of fingers during an expedition, and I've strained muscles here and there, but those were due to my own stupidity. I'm actually quite lucky that the Clans haven't roughed me up at least once, considering my reputation - and, all things considered, I got off pretty lightly. The Clans are all too willing to break arms and legs as punishment, so a couple of bruised ribs is not too bad.

Despite my misgivings, the leaves do ease the pain in my chest quite a bit, and I lie down and fall asleep. I wake up a few hours later to see that I've been moved upstairs to the spare bedroom, with Gwen reading a book on the other side of the room. The sun's already risen, though it still looks pretty early.

"How do you feel?" Gwen asks, setting down her book.

"Better." I sit up in the bed and stretch, but it hurts my chest. "How'd you get me up here?"

"I'm stronger than you think." she says. "And I know how to carry injured people without injuring them further."

"...Thanks for helping me."

"You're my boss, so I can't exactly let you walk around with injured ribs. And if I called a Med, it might throw off your secret identity." I never even thought of that, though to be fair, I wasn't exactly thinking straight.

"You... you're not repulsed by me?"

"No, not at all." Even without my mask, I can tell that she's lying. I could see the look in her eyes when I took off the rings, but to her credit, she didn't seem to let it faze her.

"...It was the result of a spell that backfired." I say. I never explained to her exactly why I look like I do, or why I chose to take a male alter-ego despite my gender-mixed body. We initially met while I was still a woman, and I only revealed who I truly was to her after the botched spell. "It was in Cind 2142E, before I opened up The Library. I went to a wizard who thought he could break the curse, but he got the spell slightly wrong. I was fortunate that it didn't remove any vital organs or anything like that, but it left me like... this."

"I understand." she says. "But... does it hurt at all?"

"No. The rings remove the pain of transformation, and my bones and muscles are all fine. I just..."

Gwen gets up and tightly embraces me again. My rib wound starts to hurt again, so she lets go a bit, but we just stand there, holding each other in the morning sun, for at least a few minutes.

"I wouldn't recommend doing anything for a few days." Gwen says after she lets go. "You can take contracts if you really want to, but don't do anything physical."

"I don't really have much of a choice." I say. "Even if I wasn't injured, I'd probably lay low for a few days to let Thordain cool off a bit."

"Yes, that's a good idea. As for Raima's contract, I'm sure she'll understand." Gwen's eyes dart to the black scabbard in the corner of the room, right beside her chair. "I wanted to examine it a bit."

"Oh? And did you figure out anything?"

"I did. See, this book..." Gwen picks up her book, which is emblazoned with the title 'Moving Mechanica'. "It talks about capable weapons a bit more, and apparently, Ilmari's not the only one who can make them in modern times... in fact, I think I know where he learned the technique."


"Good evening, Ms. Sepper."

The sun has once again set, and I sit in my office wearing my uniform and mask. Raima sits in front of me, nervously squirming in her seat; she's clutching the bright-red slip of paper in her hand. Her eyes are still red and swollen, but she seems more relaxed than yesterday.

"What have you found out about my husband's killer?" she asks, somewhat forcefully.

"Unfortunately, I don't know who exactly killed him, and I don't think I ever will." I say. I feel a slight pain in my chest, but it's bearable; Gwen bought some aspirin from the Meds today and brought it back here, and that helps immensely. "But I might have a lead on the organization that might be responsible. Have you ever heard of the 'Secret of Fire'?"

"The what? No, I've never..." she mutters. My mask activates, plastering two bright red runes on her forehead. I've attempted to translate them, but it makes little sense; the literal translation is "fire trousers", and I can't seem to think of any other way to translate it. Perhaps it's an old phrase that is lost in the mists of time.

"My partner happened upon a book called 'Moving Mechanica', which gives a brief description to them. It also said that they use a special technique to forge what they call 'capable weapons', and we've confirmed that a number of Ilmari's tools possess this quality."

I notice Raima's eyes darting to and from Ilmari's sword, which is hanging on a hook behind me.

"I have no intention of revealing anything to the Clans, Raima. If you know anything about the Secret of Fire, you can tell me."

"...Yes, we both dealt with the Secret of Fire." she says. "He learned about them during his travels around Senkai, and he was initiated and learned how to make their special tools. But we met while he was in Valtameri, and we eloped. They came several times, threatening to kill him, but they struck a deal... he would make weapons for them, and he would keep his life."

"I see. Then what happened?"

"I don't know." She shakes her head. "But the Secret of Fire, I think... I think they want to dispose of the Clans. And if they find out we were selling weapons to the Secret of Fire, well..."

"No, I understand. So was it an agent of the Secret of Fire who killed him?"

"I, I don't-" She starts crying again. She's telling the truth this time.

"There's something else I should tell you. Last night, Thordain Varkas made it clear that the Clans would arbitrate this matter." I put my hand to my chest, as if simply saying his name causes pain. "Do you have any family outside Valtameri?"

"No, I..." Raima wipes the tears from her eyes. "I have to give Ilmari a proper burial. And, I don't have anywhere else to run. If the Clans come for me... so be it."

"...Alright." I want to tell her to get the hell out of Valtameri, but if she wishes to stay, then I won't try to convince her otherwise. Not everyone can just uproot themselves and make a new life in another city. "As for our contract, I will continue searching for proper answers. I cannot promise you immediate results, but I will do my best to find out who or what killed him."

"Thank you, Mr. Tensar." She gets up and leaves my office, closing the door behind her. I can hear her chatting with Gwen outside, but I pay it no mind.

Ilmari's murder was almost certainly done by the Secret of Fire, but who are they? Moving Mechanica gave little more than their name, but I've heard it somewhere else... I may need to make a trip to the Compendium tomorrow. Until then, the night is still young, and I have little to do but deciphering some of my older texts and finish this contract's paperwork. I won't be doing any field work for at least a few weeks, but once I'm healed up, I have some more sleuthing to do.

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