Amorda blinked, taken aback by the clerk’s peremptory tone. “I beg your pardon?” she said; the very soul of upper-crust politeness.
The clerk – a harried-looking woman seated behind a broad table, with loosely-braided, waist-length hair and the shapeless grey-brown robe that passed for a uniform at the College – tapped her quill against her desk. She didn’t look up. “Name?” she repeated.
Amorda crossed her arms, tucking her pearl-studded clutch beneath her elbow. She was about to answer, then changed her mind and instead said, “Mrs. Dragonkiller.”
That made the clerk glance up. She had a monocle screwed into her left eye-socket. The lens made her iris look the size of plum. Neither eye seemed to be focussing well at the moment. “Sorry?”
“That’s my name. ‘Dragonkiller’,” Amorda said briskly.
“What kind of name is that?”
The noblewoman heaved an exaggerated sigh. “It’s occupationally derived, of course,” she replied. “You know – like Farmer, Miller, Weaver, Mason, Wheelwright, Wandbender, Stonecutter. My name’s Dragonkiller.”
Now it was the clerk’s turn to blink. “You kill dragons?” she muttered, scepticism oozing from every syllable.
“Don’t be silly,” Amorda scoffed. “Look at me! Of course I don’t.”
The clerk nodded, still frowning. "Then who -"
“My husband does,” Amorda went on with an air of immense satisfaction.
“Mmm-hmm.” The woman snorted. “He...ah…kill any today?”
“Not that I know of,” Amorda replied. She glanced out a window at the morning light. “But it’s early yet.”
“I see.” The seated woman tapped her quill again, balancing her visitor’s outrageous claims against her tasteful attire, exquisite jewellery and careful coiffure. She might be mad, the clerk reasoned, but she’s definitely wealthy. And business was business. Fourgale, the Department’s factor, wouldn’t thank her for driving away a well-heeled patron through discourtesy, even a crazy one. She bent to her parchment and made a quick notation. “Very well, Domina…Dragonkiller. What service can the Department of Artcraft render you this day?”
“I need to commission a bow,” Amorda replied. “A magic one.”
“I see.” Another scribbled note. “What sort of magic bow did you have in mind?”
“A dragonkilling bow,” Amorda said happily. “A bow for killing dragons. For my husband, the dragonkiller. So that he can…ahhh, you know…” she drew out the pause.
The clerk waited. After a long pause, she sighed and said, “…kill dragons with it?”
“Exactly!” Amorda exclaimed, beaming.
There was another long pause. Finally, the clerk said, “I’ll take you up to meet with one of our artcraft consultants, then.” With an exhausted air, she pushed her chair back and stood.
Amorda held up a slender finger. “One more thing, if you don’t mind?” Without waiting for a response, she released the clasp on her clutch, held it up as high as she could reach, and upended it.
Like a falling tree-trunk, an immense, gray-black bone, longer than the elf-woman was tall, plummeted out of the purse, struck the flagstones with a sharp crack, teetered, toppled, and fell to the floor. The resultant THUD echoed the length and breadth of the hall.
The clerk stared at the thing. Finally, her nerve snapped. “What the hell’s THAT?” she shrieked.
“It’s a bone,” Amorda said brightly. “From a dragon. A black dragon. Draconis negri. One that my husband, the dragon-killer, killed.” She snapped her purse shut and tucked it back under her elbow. “Did I mention that he kills dragons?”
The clerk shivered and wrinkled her nose at the penetrating, acrid stench emanating from the horrid thing lying on the floor. “And what am I supposed to do with it?”
“Find someone to carry it,” Amorda replied, her demeanour changing from friendly to frosty in the wink of an eye. “And count yourself blessed that I didn’t bring the head.”
A short while later, Amorda followed the chastened clerk down a high, narrow hallway. Behind them, a pair of sweating, red-eyed aspirants, their hands protected by thick laboratory gauntlets of oiled leather, struggled under the weight of the dragon bone. The horrid object smelled like a vinegar factory.
“You could’ve left the thing in your bag,” the clerk complained.
“It was scratching my money,” Amorda smiled.
“I’d be more worried about corrosion than scratching,” the clerk said clinically. “Dragon bile stains silver, you know.”
“I don’t recall ever carrying silver,” the noblewoman said loftily. She glanced back at the two aspirants. “Besides, a little exercise will be good for them. You casters don’t sweat enough.”
“I might say the same about the Duodeci,” the other woman grumbled.
“Certainly you might," Amorda replied sweetly. "But you might want to be very careful whom you say it to.”
A few moments passed before the implications of her words sank in. “What’s your real name, anyway?” the clerk asked as they walked, slowly.
“Amorda Antaíssan Olestyrian Æyllian,” Amorda replied without expression. “Née Excordia. Baroness of Arx Incultus.”
“The new princess!” the clerk exclaimed, her face going a pasty shade of gray.
“Thank you, I keep forgetting that part,” Amorda nodded. “Yes, my husband is Bræagond Æyllian. Or Bræagond Draconifator, as the Queen – my great grandmother-in-law, now – calls him.”
“He's the hal – ” The clerk stopped herself in mid-exclamation.
Amorda turned an inquiring eye on her guide. “What was that?”
When the clerk turned as if to continue walking, Amorda cleared her throat and spoke gratingly, in practised, penetrating tones: “Tell me.”
Her guide jerked to a halt. “The…the people are calling him ‘the half-blood prince’,” the woman whispered, looking suddenly terrified.
Amorda pursed her lips. “It was inevitable, I suppose,” she shrugged. “The Cleansers must be spreading their bile ‘round the clock. Oh well.”
The clerk looked confused. “You’re not angry?”
“Why should I be angry?” the noblewoman asked. “He is a prince, and he is a half-blood. Neither of which matters to me. I only care about what else he is.”
The clerk frowned. “May I ask – ”
“A dragon-killing hero,” Amorda chortled. “And he’s mine.” She motioned peremptorily. “I suggest you lead on. Before our attendants die of exhaustion. And before you stray further into impertinence, and end up as a faint stain on the wall.”
The clerk jerked a nod and trotted off again. Amorda took a more measured pace, conscious of the huffing and puffing of the bearers following behind.
At the end of the passageway, the clerk led opened a door, revealing a vertical shaft of polished stone. “Liftway,” she explained.
“I know,” Amorda said. “What floor?”
“The fourth, patricia.”
The noblewoman was about to step into the shaft when the clerk put a hand on her arm. “Yes?” Amorda asked.
“I…I wish to apologize, highness,” the clerk murmured. “For my…my rudeness. How can I make amends?”
Amorda snorted derisively. Then smiled. Why stay angry? “You could congratulate me on my wedding. It’s not every day a girl gets to call herself ‘Mrs. Dragonkiller’. Or gets to marry a dragon-slayer.” Her eyes twinkled. “Especially a half-blooded one.”
The clerk winced, swallowing audibly. “Ego te gratulo, patricia.”
“Grates agere,” the noblewoman nodded. “And I mean that.”
“Is it true –” the clerk cut herself off again, colouring a little.
Amorda frowned. “What?”
The woman was blushing furiously. “Never mind, lady.”
The noblewoman flicked a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Am I going to have to force you to cough up again?” she asked with a lopsided grin.
The clerk looked flustered and dropped her eyes. “I only wanted to know…is it true, lady, what they say? About half-bloods, I mean?”
“That it's like riding a half-mad stallion,” the woman whispered. “You close your eyes, hang on, and try not to get thrown.”
Amorda assumed a lofty expression. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” she said airily. She stepped into the shaft, standing uncomfortably on empty air. Then she winked and said, “But yes, it's exactly like that. Fourth floor!”
The enchantment took hold, and she shot upwards, skirts fluttering. Her wide-eyed, blushing guide and the two bearers, their eyes streaming from the fumes issuing from their burden, followed.
Artcrafter Ballus was everything that annoyed Amorda about the College: effeminate, superior, supercilious, affected, arrogant, over-primped, and under-brained. Before he had said a dozen words to her, she had already twice considered introducing him to her consuming, verdant fire. The only thing that saved her – and him – was her long-ingrained habit of concealment and circumspection. But that didn’t make dealing with the simpering idiot any less unpleasant.
“A…bow,” the fellow said, drawing the word out like a malediction, as though elves, who had perfected and mastered the weapon in ages long past, somehow ought now to find it crude and uncouth.
“A bow,” Amorda nodded. Reaching into her clutch, she extracted the scrap of parchment that Bræagond had given her over breakfast, before trotting off to the Palace to meet Landioryn. “ ‘Arcus roborum’, actually. ‘Fraxineum ab nervum’. With a lengthy list of enchantments.”
“Yes.” The little man made a number of check marks on his parchment, a pout of disapproval on his face.
When he had finished, he reached under his desk and, grunting at the effort, extracted a heavy, leather-bound tome. The thing was easily a foot and a half on a side, and looked to weigh more than the chair upon which the elf-woman was sitting. Ballus dropped the book to the table with a thump, lifted open the cover. “You’ve been trained, I supposed? At least, the rudimentary training afforded the nobles?”
“I have a basic knowledge of magic,” Amorda replied evenly, amusing herself for a moment by imagining what the man would look like running about the hall, stark naked and on fire.
“Well, that’s something,” the fellow huffed. He tapped the frontispiece with a manicured nail. “Enchantment options are listed alphabetically by foundation spell. Arcane in the first half of the book, and” – he pointed at a heavy indentation cut into the page-edges – “divine in the back half. Descriptions and prices ought to be self-explanatory, but I can help with anything that confuses you.”
“How kind,” Amorda said calmly. It was the sort of calm that promised mayhem.
“Each notation has a four-digit code.” He slid his note-paper, pen and inkwell toward her. “Mark down the ones you’re interested in, and call me when you’re done. We’ll tot it all up, you can make the requisite down-payment, and I’ll assign a mastercrafter to your project.”
He gave her a frank looking-over. “I presume money is no object?”
“No,” Amorda said firmly.
“Excellent.” The man’s attitude improved noticeably. He must be paid by commission, Amorda snorted to herself.
“So,” he continued, tapping the book again, “get reading, my lady, and call me when you’re done.”
Amorda flipped to the first page. It was covered in a tight scrawl of writing, and included a dizzying array of coloured drawings. Her eyes widened. This is going to take a while.
She flipped the pages with a finger. “There are hundreds of spells here! Can you really do all of these?”
Ballus regarded her pityingly. “That’s just the weapon book,” he snorted. Reaching beneath his desk, he produced another book that was just as large. “Armour,” he said flatly. Then, one after another, he brought up more books. “Rings, wands, rods, staves.”
He pointed at a sideboard that had nine volumes lined up atop it. “Potions and spell-tiles.”
“Good heavens,” Amorda said faintly.
Ballus regarded her for a long moment. Then he pushed back his chair, stood, trotted (More like ‘minced’, Amorda thought uncharitably) over to the wainscoted wall, and opened a series of carefully concealed doors. Behind them lay five rows of bookshelves, groaning under the weight of hundreds of volumes. “Miscellaneous enchanted items,” he announced briskly.
“Oh, my,” the elf-woman breathed. “Do you…is it all right if I…er…browse through them a little? After I’m done with this one? In case I want to put in another order?”
Ballus smiled. “Be my guest, lady.” It was all he could do not to rub his palms together.
The elf-woman stared at the neatly-arranged tomes, eyes wide. She frowned momentarily. “What’s that one?” she asked, pointing at a small book at one end of the top row. It appeared to be bound in metal, and was chained to the shelf.
“Proventa mens scientis,” Ballus replied. A frown of vast disapproval distorted his features. “Occasionally, a client wants an object to be crafted in such a way that it develops self-awareness.”
“You can do that, too?!”
“Unwillingly,” the man admitted. “But yes.”
“Wouldn’t a sentient possession have…uh, drawbacks?”
“ ‘Drawbacks’?” the little man shuddered. “Gods, that’s putting it mildly. We once made an intelligent dinner service for a crusty old baron in Duoamnis. He was sufficiently tyrannical that three of the teacups got together, decided to rebel, recruited comrades from dissatisfied factions among the cutlery, launched a revolution, and declared that the pantry, the smokehouse, and the western half of the buttery intended to secede from the Realm.”
Amorda stared at the man, uncertain whether he was joking.
“The Realm being the baron's manopr house,” the man went on, entirely serious. “They took hostages during the baron’s First-Day banquet, and sent a letter to the Queen informing her that the new nation of Porcelainia was henceforth free and independent, and no longer subject to the ‘filthy meatocracy’. They even sent ambassadors to the tool shed, the smithy, and the linen closet.”
“Really,” Amorda said, flabbergasted.
“It sounds odd, I know. You had to be there,” Ballus replied, shaking his head. “Four of the baron’s First-Day guests guests got scalded by the tea-pot, one was nearly strangled by a pillow-case, and another took a nasty scratching from the nutmeg grater before the house wizard managed to put the rebellion down.” He shook his head sadly. “A terrible day. Broken glass everywhere. Thank the powers that the armoury stayed loyal. The sword-belts buckled at the last minute, and one of the poniards stabbed the rebels in the back.” He stopped talking, watching her with a serious mien.
Amorda blinked. “You don’t expect me to believe all of that, do you?”
“Believe what you like, domina,” Ballus shrugged. “We’ve got a framed copy of their ‘Declaration of the Rights of Tableware’. It’d bring tears to your eyes.” He sniffed. “It’s surprisingly eloquent for something that was written on a napkin by a butter-dish, a colander, and a libertarian soup-kettle.”
The elf-woman had no idea what to say to that. Instead, she took a deep breath, and said, “I think we’ll forego the sentience option.”
“A wise choice, milady,” Ballus agreed fervently.
Suddenly, an idea struck her. “Do you…by chance…I mean, since I’m here anyway…”
“Do you ever contract work out to the…ah, the Disciples?”
Ballus cocked an eyebrow. “ ‘The Disciples’? Of Miyaga, you mean?”
The Artcrafter turned back to the bookshelf, selected a small, slender volume bound in shiny violet leather, and handed it to her with a wink. “Try not to get it all sweaty.”
The elf-woman’s cheeks flamed. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention this to anyone.”
“Discretion is our byword, lady” he said solemnly. “Once we’ve taken your money, anyway.” He grinned unpleasantly.
Amorda cocked an eyebrow. “That sounds a little like extortion.”
He shrugged. “We prefer to call it ‘business’, domina.”
“You’re a pretty one, aren’t you?” the mastercrafter exclaimed, giving her a frankly lecherous once-over.
“You’re not,” Amorda replied, uncharacteristically spouting the first thing that came into her head.
It was true; he wasn’t. For an elf, he was enormously tall, and had an ogre’s build. His hands looked strong enough to bend a ship’s anchor. His pupils were the wrong shape. And there was something odd about his skin…
The man barked a laugh. With one booted foot he kicked a stool towards her, motioning to her to sit. “Beer?” he asked, gesturing with a stein that, to Amorda, looked like a bucket with a handle affixed to it.
The elf-woman tucked her skirts beneath her shapely backside, and sat. “I’m not thirsty,” she replied. “But thank you. You’re the bow-crafter, then?”
“I am,” the man nodded. “Carrufex of Arx Calidus, at your service.”
The elf-woman looked around the workroom. It was dark, crowded, cluttered, and filled with odd odours that ranged from pungent to spicy to positively eye-watering. Bits and pieces of unidentifiable impedimenta were scattered here and there, and what little space remained on the work-tables was covered by scraps of parchment festooned with sketches and scribbled notes. From the rafters hung what looked like hundreds of bow-staves formed from all manner of materials. Only about half of them looked like they were made of wood.
Her host, though, was the greatest oddity in the place. Amorda found herself staring up at him in mute wonder. Even seated as he was, he seemed enormously disproportionate. Standing, he would’ve been a head taller than Joraz, Thanos and Karrick. And he looked like he would outweigh all three of them put together.
Carrufex grinned sadly. “I know. Ask your questions, milady. And don’t be shy. I’ve heard’em all.”
Amorda blinked. “I’m sorry,” she said at last, gathering her wits again and giving her head a shake to clear it. “I’m truly sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. That was…rude.”
“I’d accept a kiss by way of apology, if you’re of a mind,” the man grinned.
His manner was so outrageously forward that Amorda couldn’t help but laugh. “Maybe later,” she giggled. “In fact, if you’re able to make what my husband wants, I’ll give you two.” She was proud of the fact that she did not lay undue emphasis on the word ‘husband’.
It didn’t seem to matter. “Married. It figures. Ah, well, just one kiss, then,” the bowyer snorted. “Two from me and you’d forget all about your poxy husband anyway.”
“Doubtless,” the elf-woman tittered. “Can you do it?” With the toe of her boot, she tapped the enormous dragon-bone, which was lying on the floor precisely where the College’s bearers had dropped it.
Carrufex grinned broadly. Amorda started a little; his teeth were pronounced and somewhat pointed. She managed to maintain her composure, though – at least until, without so much as rising from his chair, he bent at the waist, grasped the bone in one enormous paw, and lifted it without apparent effort.
“Draconatrum,” he said softly. There was an odd, pensive look on his face. “Draconis negri. A black, yes? And a big one, too. Eight, nine hundred years old at least.”
“So my husband tells me,” Amorda nodded. “You sound like someone who knows a lot about dragons.”
“I ought to,” the man shrugged. “My great-grandmother was Ellfys of Arx Calidus.”
The elf-woman frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t…”
The bowyer shrugged. “It was a long time ago. She lived before the Shadow War, when the southeast was being terrorized by Gollgryffex and his clan.”
“Ah,” Amorda nodded. “That name I know.” Every elf in the realm did. Gollgryffex had been a verdant wyrm of terrible power who, from a lair deep in the mountains of the south, had tried to wrest control of a substantial portion of the Realm away from the throne. There had been no subtlety to his approach; he had worked through threats, destruction, and terror.
“That name, everybody knows,” Carrufex replied ruefully. “Long story short, he made a practice of kidnapping the children of wealthy families, threatening to dine on them unless their parents swore allegiance to him. Evidently he could take Kindred form, and found Ellfys a little too ‘toothsome’. She ended up in his bed instead of in his gullet. In time, she bore him a child.”
“And he let her live?” Amorda asked, startled.
“Not by choice,” the bowyer laughed wryly. “One of his natural sons, Astaffanorex, took Ellfys from the weyr while she was still bulging, hoping to use her half-blooded child as a lever against Gollgryffex. The plan didn’t pan out. Astaffanorex and his siblings eventually rebelled openly, killed their father, and struck a separate peace with King Allarýchian. Part of the deal was the return of all hostages. Arx Calidus must’ve been surprised when one of their own came back pregnant, and gave birth to a half-dragon daughter a few months later.”
“The half-dragon daughter called Elffyrinex,” Amorda breathed. “That’s who you mean, isn’t it? The one who was later called ‘Jade Death’?”
“Yeah, everybody remembers grandma, too,” Carrufex chuckled. “Made a hell of a name for herself in the Shadow War. Her and that big axe.”
“ ‘The Reaver’.” Amorda remembered it all, now, from her lessons as a child. “Did she...did she really…” She stopped suddenly, swallowing hard.
“Did she really eat the orcs she killed?” the bowyer finished. “That’s what she told us. Not raw, of course. That’d be disgusting.”
“Of course,” Amorda said faintly. “Disgusting. Orcs are much tastier braised. Or wrapped in pastry.”
Carrufex laughed at that. “Anyway, she married that knight from Celenora, and they had Da'...and then there was me.” He indicated his immense frame with satisfaction. “I got the worst of both worlds. I look like an elf, but too big, with bad skin, pointy teeth, out-of-control toenails, and all.”
“No wings, though,” the elf-woman noted. “That’s something.” The man’s shoulders bulged beneath his tunic, but she could see that he lacked one of the most definite of the physical features that normally marked half-dragons.
“That’s something, all right. And can I tell you how much it pisses me off?” Carrufex laughed ruefully. “Being able to fly might’ve made up for all the rest.”
“I imagine it would.” Amorda considered for a moment, then plunged on. “How about…” She made an ‘o’ with her lips and blew her breath out in a puff.
Carrufex rolled his eyes. “Gods, that’s the worst part.” He hawked and spat, aiming for what looked like an enormous stone pot that sat next to his work-table. The gob of spittle was at least the size of her fist, and made a most unpleasant plop when it hit its target.
Amorda swallowed heavily.
“Sorry,” the bowyer apologized when he noticed her discomfiture. “I can only manage a decent breathblast once a day. The rest of the time I have to choose between spitting on purpose, or drooling acid everywhere.”
“That’s terrible,” the elf-woman murmured, genuinely distressed for the man.
“It has its advantages,” Carrufex shrugged. “For instance” – he waggled the dragon bone at her –“you’ll notice I’m not wearing gloves. Takes a pretty potent corrosive to bother me. And I can use it to clean metal for welding, when I need to.”
Amorda had noticed his lack of gloves, but had decided not to say anything about it. “So you’ll have no problem with the commission, then?” she asked.
“Back to business, eh?” the craftsman sighed. “The pretty ones always want to talk businesss. Nah. Nothing to it. A day to shape the pieces, another to bind’em, couple more for the glue to set, and I’ll have it off to the wizzies so they can have at’er.”
Carrufex put the bone down and returned to the parchment that Ballus the Artcrafter had prepared and signed for her. He scratched his pebbled jaw. “Gotta change a few things, though.”
“Yeah. Can’t use ash or yew, like your man wants. Gotta use shibadan.”
Amorda blinked. “I’m not familiar with that. What is it?”
“Got some right here.” Carrufex stood, and the elf-woman found herself involuntarily leaning back. The man was huge. He thumped over to his work-bench, climbed up onto it, reached up into the forest of bow-staves hanging from the ceiling, selected one, and lifted it carefully down.
Once back on the floor, he passed her the bow. Amorda took it, and nearly dropped it. “It’s heavy!” she exclaimed.
Carrufex nodded. “Heaviest wood there is. Rare, too. Only grows in the southwest of Khorlno. Ogre country.”
Amorda eyed the bright orange staff with distaste. “The grain is nice enough, I suppose,” she said dubiously, “but I can’t say I like the colour.”
“Not a problem,” the bowyer replied. “Firestone oil turns it black. But that’s not why I have to use it for the job.”
“Oh? Why, then?”
“Two reasons.” He took the bow back from her. “Here’s number one.” Grasping the ends of the staff, he flexed his biceps and bent the heavy stick nearly into a circle. Amorda’s eyes bugged out; the wood didn’t so much as creak.
The bowyer let the limb snap back. “That’s what the wood in a composite bow has to be able to do. But the most important thing is this.” Leaning towards his work-table, he dipped the end of the bow in the stone pot he’d spat into moments before.
After a dozen breaths, he pulled to bow carefully out. “See?” he said proudly.
With a grin, he shook the end of the bow carefully over one of the dirty, tattered rugs that covered the floor. Droplets of emerald goo fell sizzling, and immediately began to eat into the woollen cloth.
“Shibadan’s acid-proof,” Carrufex said. “That dragon bone’s gonna leak droplets of aqua regia for centuries. Not enough to hurt your skin – although your mate ought to wear gloves, and he shouldn’t be surprised if he gets a rash every now and then – but enough to weaken the wood. Unless I use this stuff.” He tapped the bow-staff on the floor.
Amorda shook her head in amazement. “You’re the master, sir. I’ll leave the question of the wood in your hands.”
“You know what the best part is?” the craftsman grinned.
“I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.”
He held the bow-staff up. “Shibadan’s just the orc-word. In our tongue, this is called Meadomina. ‘My Lady’. It’s a beautiful tree. Nearly as beautiful as you.” The fellow winked.
Amorda smiled brightly. “I think we’re going to get along just fine, Master Carrufex,” she giggled.
The bowyer tossed the staff to one side. “Okay,” he mused. “Bone, wood…where’s the horn?”
The elf-woman blinked. “Sorry?”
“And there it is,” Carrufex sighed. “Look, beautiful, a composite bow needs three things: wood, sinew and horn. Wood provides the base structure and flexibility, horn provides the compressive tension when the bow’s bent, and sinew holds it all together. The dragon bone’s just there to provide the Fundamentum Arcanum…the enchanted thing that holds the magic.”
“If you say so,” Amorda replied, at once both interested and concerned. “Why can’t you use normal horn?”
“Same reason I can’t use yew,” the craftsman replied. “Acid from the bone’ll eat right through it. Gotta use horn from an acid-immune critter. Black dragon horn’d be best, of course, for aesthetic reasons…but I’m thinking from the look on your face that you don’t got any.”
Amorda sighed. “He…I understand that the head was delivered to someone else. A noblewoman in Zare. And it was intact.”
Carrufex shook his head. “Gotta have horn,” he said apologetically. “Not a lot; just enough to form the belly. Tiny strips would be fine; I can laminate it. But it’s gotta be from a critter that’s at least resistant to acid.”
“Are you telling me,” Amorda said faintly, “that my husband has to go kill another black dragon?”
“No, no!” the bowyer laughed. “Not at all!”
“Thank the gods,” the elf-woman breathed.
“Green dragon horn would be fine, too,” Carrufex said solemnly.
His smile vanished when he saw the look on the elf-woman’s face.
“Acid?” Ara asked, perplexed. “What on earth for?”
“Not ‘acid’, ‘acid-resistant’,” Amorda said, as calmly as her frustration and confusion allowed. “The bow-maker said I needed horn from a creature that was immune to acid. Or at least, acid-resistant.”
“Well, that goes without saying,” Ara nodded.
“Does it?” the elf-woman asked through clenched teeth. “Does it really?”
They were sitting in Ara’s office at the College. Amorda had sought the dragon out immediately upon discovering that she lacked one of the key components for her beloved’s new weapon.
“Steady on,” Ara laughed. She yanked the stopper out of an elegant crystal decanter, poured two glasses of yellow wine, and handed one to her seething guest. “A tonic for the nerves.”
“I could use one,” Amorda snorted. She drained half the cup in a single draught. When she put it down again, the dragon refilled it without a word.
“You put up with an awful lot,” the elf-woman said after a pause.
“Magi? I suppose we do,” Ara nodded. “Balancing the forces in a flux-crafted object is a delicate task. It’s worth taking the time to assemble the right mat –”
“No, no!” Amorda interrupted. “Not you, magi; I meant you, dragons. What with people making bows and what-not out of your bones.”
“Ah. Yes, I suppose that ought to seem odd,” Ara agreed. “I guess I’m just used to it. Besides, it’s not that peculiar, to our minds; we do the same ourselves, after all.”
She fished around in her bodice, at length pulling out what looked like a small gold amulet hung from a chain. “This is a gift that my dam gave to my sire. A charm of protection. She crafted it from one of her own scales.” Raising it to her lips, she kissed it and slipped it back inside her gown. “No hardship; we shed old scales. This is a precious keepsake.”
“Nothing the Kindred discard, shed, or otherwise exude is especially useful,” Amorda said drily.
“You underestimate yourself,” Ara smiled. “You yourself are one of the great beauties of the realm. And even a dullard like me can feel the force of kesatuan blazing from you like the heat from a bonfire.” The smile widened into a grin. “I’m sure a talented mage could fashion some sort of charm-enhancing object from one of your elbows or toe-nails, or something.”
Amorda burst out laughing and nearly dropped her wine-glass.
Ara let her friend’s nervous catharsis run its course. After a long pause, she said, “You had a question.”
“I did,” the elf-woman nodded, still giggling to herself. “I did. I need some dragon-horn. To make Bræagond’s bow.”
Ara wrinkled her nose. “You’re welcome to one of mine,” she said solemnly. “But I have to warn you that I’m not likely to shed for another couple of decades.”
“Thank you,” Amorda snickered. “But it wouldn’t help. But you're a golden dragon, and fire-immune. I was told that I need a horn from a creature that can withstand acid.”
“After years circulating among women of the Duodeci, I’ve developed a certain resistance to caustic innuendo and corrosive gossip,” Ara smiled. “But regrettably that doesn’t translate to the physical realm.” She drained her own glass. “I do not see how I can help you.”
“I need you to tell me what kind of horn I can use instead. Well," she amended, "not me, as such; the bow-maker.”
“‘Bow-maker’,” Ara mused aloud. “Are you talking about Carrufex?”
“You know him?”
“We’ve met. I’m surprised he didn’t have any dragon horn lying around that shop of his.”
“He did,” Amorda snorted. “But it was from an iswyrm. No good. Not acid-resistant. I was hoping you could advise me. What kind of horn could I use, and how can I find one?”
“Hmmm.” The dragon steepled her fingers beneath her chin. “Well, among the dragons, the blacks and greens are both immune to corrosive attacks. My copper and silver cousins, likewise.”
“I don’t think my dear husband would countenance using body parts from a good dragon in his weaponry,” Amorda mused.
Ara shrugged. “A gift, freely given, is no burden. But each to his own. There are other options. If Bræagond’s scruples are as firm as you describe them, then presumably we can also eliminate beings from the celestial realms, like angels, or the djinn.”
“Genies have horns?” Amorda exclaimed. “I didn’t know that!”
“Actually, they don’t,” Ara said, frowning. “Good point. And their claws aren’t long enough to be useful substitutes.”
“Claws? The bowmaker wants horns.”
Ara shrugged. “They grow from the same chitinous material. I can’t think why claws - or for that matter, fingernails - would not be interchangeable.
“We’ll also have to eliminate the most potent option imaginable,” she went on.
“And that is…?”
“Unicorn horn,” Ara said gravely. “I can think of nothing more perfectly suited to your mate’s needs. But unicorns are…”
“…are creatures of pure good,” the elf-woman interrupted. “And guardians of the green. And they die if their horns are taken. He’d strangle me for even suggesting it.” She winced. “And if Bræagond didn’t, his auntie Myaszæron would do it for him. I still catch her weeping over Syelission, every now and then.”
“She paid a high price for her Duke,” Ara agreed. “I hope he was worth it.”
Amorda grinned sadly. “You wouldn’t talk like that if you’d ever met Kaltas Aiyellohax. That's a man and a half," she sighed. "So, what other options are there?”
“Well,” the dragon said, tugging at an ear, “just off the top of my head, there are a few extraplanar creatures that might fit the bill. Arrohawks, for one. They don’t have horns, but their bills might do the trick. Delvers are immune to acid, and their talons – I understand the Dwarves collect those, and use them for tool-making – might suit. And your mate and his friends have had some run-ins with aberrations, from what I’ve heard?”
“Indeed they have,” Amorda said darkly.
“Well, then, Digesters have horns, and they’re acid-immune,” Ara offered. “And, of course, the dreaded Mimic.”
Amorda frowned. “What’s a ‘mimic’?”
“Another aberration,” Ara replied. “A creature of the Deepdark. They can take any shape, and they like to trap wayfarers. Their favourite guise is that of a treasure chest.”
“Really?” the elf-woman exclaimed. “Who leaves chests of treasure lying around dank dungeons? What kind of idiot would fall for that?”
“You’d be surprised,” the dragon laughed. “In any case, I don’t know whether a Mimic would serve; I don’t know that they have horns.”
“How could you not know?”
“Nobody knows what a Mimic’s true form is,” the dragon shrugged. “They don’t really have a permanent shape. When they’re killed, they kind of…just…dissolve.”
“Ew,” Amorda muttered.
“Same problem with oozes,” Ara mused to herself. “They’re all acid-immune, or at least acid-resistant, but they’ve no horns. And then there’s the Tojanida.”
“ ‘Tojanida’,” Ara replied, enunciating carefully. “They’re extraplanar, too. From Vandilori, I think, the realm of the water-beings. They’re acid-immune, and while they don’t have horns, they’ve got heavy claws, and a carapace that might serve. But I’ve never seen one, and I’ve no idea how to go about obtaining their shells.”
“Not much point considering them, then,” Amorda groused. “So, is that it?”
“Not at all,” Ara laughed. “There’re two more types of creatures that have horns, and that are strongly resistant to acid. And that your beloved has more than a little experience with.”
The elf-woman’s eyebrows rose. “Really? And what are they?”
“Fiends,” the dragon laughed. “Devils. Demons.”
“Sjau feikinstaffr!” Amorda exploded.
“Precisely the phrase I would choose,” Ara agreed. "It's a poser, isn't it?"
“It certainly is, but that’s not what I meant,” the elf-woman snarled. “I just wish that someone had brought this up while Lööspelian was still squatting in my garden!”
“Would she have let you saw one of her horns off?” Ara asked, sounding dubious.
“Probably not.” Amorda rubbed her eyes wearily. “So…how do I get a fiend-horn? Do I pay one of you magi to summon one, so my husband can kill it?”
“That’s a little extreme, isn’t it?” the dragon asked, arching an eyebrow. “Didn’t you already fight a pack of fiends? In Novaposticum, I mean?”
“Yes,” the elf-woman nodded, remembering the battle that had slain her ancilla, and shuddering a little. Reticia hadn’t been the same since she’d been Raised. “But two of them got away before the boys could kill them. And the one they did kill melted away into filth and corruption.”
“Not the cornugae,” Ara said decisively, shaking her head. “You wouldn’t have wanted their horns anyway. The devils, for all their evil, are creatures of the eternal order, and their axiomatic essence would work against your intended design. Didn’t you say Bræagond wanted an anarchic weapon?”
Amorda checked the scrap of parchment. “Aye, he did. So why bring that battle up at all?”
“Because,” the dragon explained patiently, “didn’t you say that the puna you fought – the red dragon, Morowæth Hedfan, I mean – I thought Thanos said that he was a son of Karventää? Lady Deathscorch, that is?”
“That’s what Lööspelian said,” Amorda nodded. “But why does that matter?”
“Because Karventää’s a hakasydän,” Ara replied. “A ‘demonheart’. At some point in the past, probably in search of power and immortality, she replaced her own heart with vile flesh, irrevocably corrupting her physical and spiritual essence. She willingly became one of them. An accursed creature. A fiend.”
“A fiend,” Amorda breathed. “So, if she’s a fiend, then her son…”
“Exactly. The dragon Morowæth was half-fiend. Half-demon. Which means that his horns would be acid-resistant. And their essence would, in fact, reinforce the anarchic power of your beloved’s toy.”
The elf-woman frowned. “Well, that’s something, I suppose.”
“But the horns are still attached to the dragon’s head,” Amorda sighed. “And the head’s still in Novaposticum, getting pickled.”
“Surely,” Ara agreed. “But didn’t your mate mention that he’d taken his enemy’s claws?”
“Tîor’s arse, woman!” Kalestayne bellowed. “Are you serious?”
“Deadly serious,” the elf-woman replied.
“What does he need with that kind of weapon? Is he planning on going after Bardan himself?”
“Is there a problem, magister?” Amorda asked, doing her best not to grin at the ancient wizard’s agitation.
“Problem? Problem?” he half-shouted. “Why should there be a problem? I’ve already set aside the better part of a year for three of my top students to ensorcel that bloody necklace you left me last autumn,” the mage said heatedly. “And now you want me to make this?” He shook her parchment furiously. “Me? Personally?”
“I’d take it as a great favour, magister,” the elf-woman said gravely. “And so would my family. My new family, I you know what I mean.”
Kalestayne’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t wave that name at me, missy,” he growled. “I’ve served the throne for a thousand years. Seven generations of House Æyllian are in my debt up to their eyeballs. If you think you can force my hand with that sort of clumsy blackmail, then you can shake your pretty tail right out of my office.”
“I’m sorry,” Amorda said immediately, all contrition. “That was not my intent, sir. You must know that I’ve nothing but respect and reverence for your skills and service to the realm. I only meant –”
“Oh, spare me,” the mage growled. “And stow the flattery. You knew I’d do it when you walked in here. Your mate and his friends are the first thing other than the bloody Duchess to shake this realm up in a handful of centuries. Anything that makes them more of a threat to the status quo is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
“And as for you,” he went on, giving her a stern glance, “you’re a great one for playing the fritter-headed socialite, but I know what you really are. And whom you work for.” Joining his thumbs, he waggled his fingers in a clumsy imitation of wings.
The elf-woman showed her best dimples to hide her consternation. “I’m what you see, magister. Nothing more.”
“I see a great deal,” Kalestayne retorted. “More than you could possibly imagine…Alauda.”
Amorda froze. “You’re mistaken.”
“I assure you, I’m not,” the mage shrugged. “But no matter. Call yourself whatever you please. It doesn’t make a gnat’s wick of difference to me. All that matters is that somewhere amid all the thievery, flattery, graft and intrigue, you’re loyal to the Queen and to the realm. And so’s your man. That’s good enough for me.”
He snorted briefly, then added, “And of course, if you’d ever like a little help learning how to make better use of the talents that your true blood grants you, daughter of the Forest Mother, then I’d be happy to oblige. Powers like yours are far too rare, and far too dangerous, to be left untested and untrained.”
“I’m certain I don’t know what you mean, sir,” the elf-woman said faintly.
“I’m certain you do,” Kalestayne shrugged. “But if appealing to your loyalty and reason isn’t sufficient to convince you, then I’ll simply suggest you think about the future.” He pointed at her midriff. “That child is going to bear not only your blood, but that of your mate, Centang Lewat. How are you going to mother it if you don’t know the full extent even of your own skills?”
Amorda went white, and the old wizard half-rose in his chair, wondering whether she was going to faint. But she managed to control herself. “I’m not…I’m not…” she whispered faintly.
“You’re not what?”
Her voice was barely audible. “I’m not…certain…”
“You don’t know whether the child’s his,” Kalestayne said, finishing her thought. “Is that it?”
Amorda clenched her fingers so tightly that the knuckles went as white as her cheeks. She couldn’t speak, so she simply nodded.
“Hmm. Yes, I can see how that might be upsetting for you.” Kalestayne tapped a finger on the arm of his chair. “Damned shame there’s no one in all the realm that can use the flux to trace bloodlines.” He stared at her pointedly.
She blinked, thinking hard.
“Well, the least I can do,” he said decisively, when she failed to respond, “is to ease your mind by getting to work on the toy you want. Carrufex is crafting the damned thing, I assume?”
“Yes,” she whispered, still distracted and distraught. “I just have to…to…get him the claws…”
“As you say,” Kalestayne said dismissively. “As quickly as you can, please. He’s good, and he’s fast. He’ll have it done in a couple of days, I imagine, and I’ll be able to get right at it. I’ve some time at the moment, and knowing your man, I assume he’ll want it quickly.”
Amorda nodded. “As quickly as you can manage, magister,” she murmured. “I’ll pay you extra for that, of course.”
“Damned right you will,” the old wizard chortled. “You’ll have it in about a few weeks, if all goes well.” He grew suddenly serious. “But I’ll offer you a discount, if you’re willing to grant me a boon.”
The elf-woman’s eyebrows rose. “Name it,” she said instantly.
“Don’t agree ‘till you’ve heard what it is,” Kalestayne warned. “Here’s my offer. I’ll knock an eighth off the total price…if you’ll let me name your whelp.”
Amorda blinked. “What?” she blurted, all pretence and posturing gone.
“What do you say? Not the use-name, of course,” he amended. “But one of his names. Or hers. Whichever.”
“That’s it?” she asked, astonished. “Just a name?”
“Names are power,” the old mage said. “Not to mention the fact that your child might one day sit on the Filigree Throne. What do you say?”
Mention of the throne shook her. A twitch settled into her cheek. “I can’t agree to that,” she said at last. “Not without consulting my husband.”
“Good girl,” the mage said drily. “If he’s balky, you might want to put it to him that the master magister of the realm is willing to pay tens of thousands of orries for the privilege of naming his get.”
“If the decision were mine alone,” she said swiftly, “I’d agree in a – ”
“I know,” Kalestayne laughed. “I know. Look, just ask him, would you?”
“I will. And about my powers, I’ll…I’ll think about it.”
“Do that. I’m not entirely comfortable with your sort running around unsupervised.”
“Neither was Bræagond,” she snickered. On a sudden impulse, she leapt from her chair, knelt at the old wizard’s feet, and seized one of his hands. She was about to kiss it when he yanked it back.
She looked up at his face in shock.
“Sorry!” he exclaimed. “That wasn’t intended as a slight! I’ve just come from an evocations class, and haven’t had a chance to wash up yet.”
He waggled his fingers at her, and she could see that they were smudged with some dark, black-brown substance.
She cocked a querying eyebrow.
“Fireball,” he explained. “Unless you happen to be fond of the taste of –”
“Say no more,” Amorda exclaimed, backing away. “Say no more!”