Halkegenia Online – v3.0 – Chapter 1 – Part 1

On the western cliffs of the Northern most tip of Albion, overlooking the mists and the endless sea which stretched all the way to the mysterious horizon from which no man had ever returned, there existed a village clinging to the end of the world. The land was rough here, and the seasons were harsh and unkind, summers with little rain, and bitter winters. The people had grown hardy and stoic to endure as they did.

So distant and insignificant, nary a post ship ever docked there, and only the occasional barge came along its river ways to deliver goods to market. Even in times of war it had remained peaceful, and in times of peace it had often known a small measure of prosperity, its farmers living as they always had raising goats and sheep, oblivious to the violence elsewhere. For the common people of this land, and its petty mages, news of war, of mass violence, death and killing, it probably seemed like a dream.

No wonder Captain Trayvor had spoken so fondly of his home.

Lieutenant Terrance Dunwell pondered this as he was helped down from the deck of the docked barge by a pair of strong and sturdily built men. For him, war was reality, as it had been since he'd joined the Dragon Knights, and any corner of the world that seemed untouched was merely an illusion.

Moving with a pronounced and pained limp, Dunwell patted at his leg. The healers had treated him as best they could, but it would take time if it was to mend properly. Founder knew that he could have ended up worse off. If it had been any drake but Scirroco, he'd likelier have died. The healers said it would still be a good week before he was judged fit to fly once more, and when he did, it would be with one of the sullen fire dragons rather than his familiar.

'That . . . woman . . .' It seemed to be the only way he could describe her without earning her scorn.

Dunwell shook his head as he recalled. Insufferable, harsh, lazy, and intensely cynical when she wasn't simply getting drunk on his salary. His life had known nothing but complications since he'd summoned the Rhyme Dragon and bound her as his familiar. And now she decided to wonder off for a month's time on her own business, casually informing him that they would meet again in Londinium before vanishing from the infirmary.

Regrettably, he had no doubt that she'd return. For whatever reason, she'd stuck around this long.

And yet . . . He was truly relieved that she had left him for now. Grateful to not have those ancient eyes appraising his every action. This was something he needed to do on his own.

Like so many small villages, this one was no different, peasant cottages pressed up against the hillsides to shelter from the elements, a cluster of larger houses situated around the church, and the normal collection of farmers' wives and children at work and play. He found the village priest easily enough and asked for directions to the Trayvor home.

As it happened, the house was quite a ways from the center of town, situated very near the edge of the cliffs beside an isolated ash oak that had grown stubbornly in this place since before the town for as long as any could remember.

"I can show you the way." The priest offered, eyeing Dunwell as he turned around with a limp.

"Just point it out to me." He'd answered.

The Priest had nodded reluctantly and led him to the start of the sheep path that wound away from the edge of the village and out of view as it followed the cliffs. Dunwell had been told that so long as he followed it, he would find his way.

The isolation of the path was good for him. The isolation of this journey was good for him. Time to remember, to think, and to satisfy himself that he'd done everything he could. He'd wondered about it into the nights, a brain fever that wouldn't relent. It wasn't his fault, he understood that, it wasn't anyone's fault, but he'd still failed.

'It would have worked.' He thought as he rubbed at his leg, the salves were starting to wear off, and with them, the burning and itching was returning to his consciousness. 'The matter is control, one Air isn't enough, and without Earth the particulates can't be replenished as they abrade.' There was no way around it, nearly killing himself with that mess of a spell, he'd been and idiot to think he could make it work.

'Back to the start again.' He thought, It'd probably be better if he just burned his old notes and started off from the beginning. But he loathed discarding the ratty old leather notebook tucked into his pocket.

It felt like it took a very long time to reach where he was going, but when he looked up, the sun had hardly moved, maybe less than an hour's walk. It would have been half that if he'd been able to keep a brisk pace or simply hired a horse. He stopped long enough beneath the shade of a tree to reapply the salves the healers had left him with to treat the abrasions that were still bloody and raw, more painful than debilitating. Still, a risk of infection persisted, or worse of necrosis if he did not follow their instructions.

The house sat where the Priest had promised, a hundred paces from the end of the world, and accompanied by a gnarled old Ash Oak that simply seemed to have decided it would not die before the world ended around it.

The house itself was the Captain's handiwork, two floors, with a well-kept tile roof and white washed wood walls. Proper glass in the windows, and little reflector beside the door that could house either a mage-conjured light or an oil lamp. The rose bushes in the garden were lovely, and looked to have been tended to by expert hands, that must have been the doing of Analice Trayvor, the Captain's wife . . .

The thought almost made him stop. At any time up until now he could have turned back. He could have said that his injuries had flared up and that he could not fulfill this responsibility. He could have apologized and asked it of someone else.

Facing the point where escape ceased to be an option, however, he was met by the cold reality of a responsibility he'd taken upon himself, to see this through to the end.

He took the brass door knocker and struck heavily three times. No reply until Dunwell caught the turning noises of a heavy mechanical lock, a wizened little face peeked out.

"Pardon?" A woman in the clothes of a maid servant asked.

"Ma'am." Dunwell stood straighter, shoulders squared, raven hair combed back. "Lieutenant Terrance Dunwell to see the Lady of the House."

"Miss Analice you mean?" The graying woman took an offered note stating his identity and sealed by the Crown. More importantly, she stopped to read it. Literate, he noted. The Trayvor family was as discerning in servants as it was subordinates. "Just a moment Sir."

Disappearing back into the house, Dunwell composed himself, closed his eyes and took a breath. There was only one way this was ever going to end, he'd known that when he'd Left Newcastle to come here. He'd known it from the moment he'd taken it upon himself.

And he'd wanted to reject it the moment Analice Trayvor came to the door. Long blonde hair combed straight, bright blue eyes much like her husband's. She'd was dressed all in white, still young enough for simplicity to be charming and beautiful, and clutched at a tiny book, a bible that she'd been reading from before being summoned to the door.

"Monsieur?" She spoke with the faint accent of a Northerner, close to the ports that did the most business with Germania. Marrying into the Trayvor family, he was sure she was fluent in at least Romalian and Gallian. "Pardon, I was told you'd just arrived. Monsieur Dunwell, was it?"

Dunwell opened his mouth to speak, but his voice was taken from him. Instead, he nodded slowly.

Analice Trayvor drew back a strand of her hair, smiling innocently. "I'm very Sorry Monsieur, but if you're looking for my Husband, I'm sure it must be some military matter, he was recalled to New Castle a fortnight ago. He is not here. Monsieur?"

Dunwell realized that his lips were still parted. Young . . . A decade younger than her husband, barely wed. She didn't understand what he was doing here. Couldn't understand what his purpose was.

"I am aware of the Captain's assignment to Newcastle." Dunwell answered quietly, folding his hands behind his back. "I am a Flight Lieutenant of the Fourth Dragon Knight's squadron. I served under your husbands command."

"Dunwell . . . Yes . . . I remember." She smiled fondly. "He's mentioned you in his letters. So you're the diligent young man? But . . . served?" Revelation was dawning slowly, an unease, a hint of an idea that hadn't quite bubbled to the surface. She didn't even know to deny it yet.

What was he supposed to do? He was a printer's son, and his father had died early and left him alone, and he was a Dragoon not yet Knighted in service to his King, a boy recently made a man and a soldier, blooded less than a week ago.

From his father and his childhood, he knew words and culture, he knew poems and plays. From Charles Trayvor, he knew spells, and swordcraft, and riding, how to fight and kill. But between the two, what experience was there that could guide him. What was he supposed to do?

"Flight Lieutenant of the Fourth Dragon Knight Squadron, Terrance Dunwell, delivering a message to Misses Analice Trayvor, wife of Sir Charles Trayvor." He began as if he was giving a report, cold, impersonal and wrong. What else was he supposed to say? He offered a letter to Analice, accepted into dainty hands, but left unopened. The wax bore the Royal Crest, not Captain Trayvor's own.

She saw what it was, and she knew what it was, and she rejected what it was. Like a child that didn't want to accept that the Faerie Tale wasn't real.

"On the Third of Tiir in this year of our Blessed Founder six thousand three hundred and twenty two, Captain Sir Charles Trayvor, Acting Commander of the Fourth Dragon Knight's squadron, did give his life virtuously in battle in service to the Good King James of the house of Tudor, and to the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Albion." Dunwell closed his eyes, and bowed his head. "God save the King."

What was he supposed to do?

When the silence went on for too long, he opened his eyes. Analice Trayvor hadn't moved, hadn't breathed, her light grip on the unopened letter failed, the little envelope fluttering to the ground. Only when it touched wood did time start again for the young widow.

Dunwell stood resolute, face fixed forward, eyes straight. His duty was to be strong now as the woman before him broke and wept, sinking to her hands and knees. The maid returned, crying to her mistress who couldn't have cared less if she was there. Dunwell had only the loss of his own father to compare it to.

Misery caused him to kneel, and misery also caused him to carefully retrieve the dropped bible and place a hand on Analice's trembling shoulders.

Damaged body, damaged pride, lost comrades, and the suffering that it brought. How had there ever been a time when he'd looked on battle and seen glory?

"You had that look in your eye Lad." Said in a rasped voice, like its owner had been gargling gravel. "Same look you had last time I saw you."

Sir Terrance Dunwell looked up abruptly from the glass of amber liquid held lightly in his right hand. He'd been nursing it most of the night, strong drink was a gift from the Founder after all. And all the better to numb the ache of old battle scars. Besides, meeting in a place like this, it would have been more suspicious to be empty handed.

The place being a tavern in the lower wards of Londinium. Dunwell had forgotten the name of the place, it didn't matter much, the sign outside had changed a dozen times over the years, as many times as the establishment had changed hands. But the alcohol had stayed the same, as had the good mood of the guests and tavern girls.

"What can I say." Dunwell took a sip from his brandy, giving a nod to the far side of the table to the hooded and the gray man who he had come to meet. "This place brings back old memories, Sir."

Of his youth, and of comrades he'd known then, and of a certainty he'd lost as the years had gone by until all that was left of Terrance Dunwell was a tired old man creeping past his fortieth year. Though not quite as old as to have turned his hair white as age had done to this man, or to excuse the white stubble that peppered his jaw from chin down to neck.

"It's been a long time since I've been called 'Sir'." The older man chuckled. "Least of all by you." Taking the offered seat with a whisper of thanks, and then another as Dunwell raised his hand, calling for another drink.

"And it's been about as long since you called me 'Lad'." Dunwell observed casually as he cast his gaze to the rest of the diners. Nobody here looked overly suspicious, but one could never tell. Too many of the King's old agents had seen the writing on the wall and changed sides while they still could, desperate to grab at the chance to prove their loyalty to Albion's new master.

The people were fast discovering that the new 'King', for all of his sympathy for the commoners, was a lot like the Old King, secret police and all.

"To growing old." Sir James Nare declared as he took his glass from a passing serving girl and raised it high. "Or at least, old enough to reminisce."

"To growing old." Dunwell agreed as he touched glasses with his former Captain. "Whoever would think we'd look forward to it?"

They both drank, Dunwell at last finishing his own while Nare made a healthy start on his. Both men sunk down in their seats as the alcohol loosened them up. Just a little. Enough to add some courage, but not nearly enough to make either of them sloppy.

"Aye, it's not so bad, Lad." Nare whispered as he held his glass up to examine the brandy by lamp light. "Growing old I mean. You get a perspective on the world, things don't bother you so much. You get a chance to see the great wheel turning." He put his glass down. "But you didn't ask me here to receive the wisdom of a long life."

"No." Dunwell agreed. "My concerns lay with the future rather than the past, and when last I heard, you wrote that you might be able to give me an answer to one of my questions."

Nare nodded, resting his hand on the rim of his glass. In a trick of the lantern light, the older man's smile faded into shadow and then disappeared altogether.

"This is good brandy. Gallian?"

"Where else?" Dunwell answered.

Blockade or not, Heretics or not, Faeries or not, Albion was still flaunting its maritime superiority. Romalia might have been patrolling the Southern borders while Tristain made noises to the East, but they would be hard pressed to close off all avenues of trade. In the end, Albion still had something that everyone wanted, and the Merchant's always found a way.

Merchants like a certain Sir James Nare, formerly of the Dragon Knights, long since retired and taken to a more peaceful life.

Nare had done well for himself, in spite of the turmoil, keeping his head down when the war had started, paying bribes to the right officials and selling to the right nobles. Dunwell didn't blame him, Nare had three young sons now, and a wife to look after, and he'd had the wisdom to see that he couldn't help what was coming, only take shelter and keep himself and his family safe.

But James Nare was still an honorable man, as honorable as anyone else in their fallen country, in any case. There were things he could learn that Dunwell could not, at least, not without rousing suspicion. The smallest bit of guilt niggled at the back of the Captain's brain as he acknowledged that he was taking advantage of his old flight leader, maybe even drawing danger to him and his family.

But if that happened he'd be bringing the same danger down on the heads of himself and all of his subordinates. He would not have involved the man if there was any other way.

"Now then." Dunwell set his elbows on the table. "Tell me what you know of the woman who calls herself Sheffield."

"Lord Cromwell's secretary, Aye?" Nare looked to his glass. "An interesting one I should think. Lots of Merchants doing business with her the last few months."

"Gallian." Dunwell said unhappily.

The supplies flowed from Gallia, from every manner of industry. Bulk goods and food, finished goods, luxuries and more sulfur and salt peter than all the Earth mages in Albion could have produced. The backers of Reconquista were indeed Gallian, and whoever they were, their wealth ran deep. Which meant their hair likely ran some shade of blue. Royals of one of the houses, taking advantage of the idiocy of the present King.

"Would you believe Tristanian?"

Dunwell was stopped mid thought. "Pardon?"

Nare nodded again as he swirled his glass. "I'm sure they were shipped from Gallia, but that wasn't their origin. The crates are marked from the Germanian markets, and stamped with the logo of a trading house that sits on the Tristanian border. Founder knows how many times they traded hands to get here."

"And you're sure?" Dunwell narrowed his eyes with cast suspicion.

Nare shrugged, face betraying nothing of what he was thinking. "Aye, I'm sure. As for how I know. The black markets have been interesting recently. Or haven't you heard?"

"Goods from the Faerie Lands." Dunwell sighed.

It was inevitable that they would start to trickle out given enough time. The Faeries were interesting, and interesting things fetched a premium. Whether by business, discovery, or theft, trinkets of ALfheim had started to trade hands.

Dunwell had seen them coming in, confiscated shipments for the black markets. Any goods made or altered by Faerie crafts had been banned for private possession on order of Lord Cromwell and were to be confiscated at once. The truth was, that it was merely a pretext. Now that the Rebel leaders were the legitimate authority and had acquired the mechanisms to profit directly from Albion's trade, they didn't appreciate others horning in on their business.

Dunwell had long lost the ability to appreciate the irony. But the confiscated goods were a fascinating, sometimes terrifying look into their new enemies.

The whimsical, almost impossible creations. Swords and armor that confounded Earth Mages as to their composition and precision of crafting, every sort of charm, to hasten movement, or to lighten burdens, or to cast defensive spells that restored themselves with time. Weapons imbued with magic of their own, and any number of clever little devices.

None was an exception in and of itself, most could have been replicated, one way or another, by powerful magic, but taken together, and in the quantity that he'd seen, it spoke of a tremendous concentration of magical potential and talent. All of this from just the small trickle of black market goods.

"I can tell you right now, she's the buyer for sure." Nare breathed slowly. "Only place in Londinium they can be going. And your Lady Sheffield is the only one who can flaunt Lord Cromwell's decree like that."

"I've heard she's had the Palace basements renovated." Dunwell muttered. Given her involvement in Reconquista so far, he could only imagine it was some sort of stockpiling effort. A sensible thing to do.

"And what about Sheffield herself?" Dunwell shook his head, this was interesting, but not what he was here to learn. "The name is Gallian correct?"

"Gallian Noble." Nare agreed. "Old Nobility too, so old the names practically been lost and rediscovered a dozen times."

"And is our Lady Sheffield of that line?" Dunwell asked the question he most wanted to know. Who was she? Where was she from? Who were her allies?

Nare blinked slowly, so slowly that Dunwell wondered if one glass had been enough to leave him drunk. 'Come on man! You can hold your liquor better than that!'

Nare started to snicker. "That's . . . where it gets interesting Lad." He slid his glass to the middle of the table.

"I'm listening." Dunwell lifted a finger to the passing waitress. "Only one more."

"Fair enough." Nare gave him a grateful little nod. "So . . . I had to ask a friend in the Hanza who has some dealings with Merchant's in Gallia. You'd call it a mutual extra-legal arrangement."

"I'd call it racketeering, but do go on." Dunwell said. Not like he had any right to hold his head above criminals these days.

"These fellows have had words with your Lady Sheffield before. Apparently her House arranged a large and ongoing deal to purchase iron ore from Germanian mines on behalf of a number of smaller interests throughout Gallia. They confirmed that she represents the house of Sheffield. But . . ."

Dunwell listened closely.

"When I said an ancient house, extinct is more like it, and extremely reclusive, going back almost half a century. The truth is that they've been dying out for a long time and most would barely recognize the name except from old records." Nare grimaced. "The Last Lady Sheffield died fifteen years ago, and her title was inherited by her daughter."

"The current Lady Sheffield." Dunwell nodded slowly.

"No again . . ." Nare accepted his second glass, swishing the brandy once as he waited for Dunwell to digest what had just been said. "In fact, that Lady Sheffield died six years ago."

"Then a granddaughter?" Dunwell corrected.

Nare tossed back his head as he took the glass in one go. Scirroco would have been impressed. "Doubtful." He blew out a heavy breath. "At the time she passed away, the previous Lady Sheffield was ten years old." Getting up from his chair. The old Dragon Knight stretched slowly. "Not that I care to find out Lad, but it seems to me you've an impostor on your hands."

The soft whirring noise of the grind wheel, the sudden -clank- and scream as metal met stone in a shower of sparks that spilled down from the point of contact and dusted themselves across the gloves and apron of the Leprechaun Smith. The smell of the oil and of burning metal. The lapping sound of water as the apprentice doused the blade edge. These filled the workshop of the master sword smith Kofu.

For her part, Kofu didn't seem to notice at all. The sparks could have landed on her skin, gotten inside her gloves or down her shirt and burned her, and she would hardly have flinched. Her entire being was concentrated on the blade in front of her.

Shinozaki Rika, Lisbeth, Faerie of the Leprechaun race, and now the apprentice to said sword smith, watched her master at work, holding her breath all the while.

'I should probably be taking notes.' Liz thought.

But she didn't think this was something she could learn by writing it down, not like furnace temperatures or cues in the colors of the metal. She had to watch and then do it for herself.

She saw Kofu cock her head, Liz hesitated, face invisible behind her mask and goggles. The smith made a small adjustment to her grip, altering the angle of the grind as she continued to lightly tap the blade across the stone's surface.

The apprentice smith sighed in relief, she'd thought her master was about to get pissed and throw the blade at the wall like she had with a couple of others in the past. But those incidents were becoming less and less frequent now that she was getting used to her skills as a real smith. Besides, they'd put way too much work into this one to have messed up now.

Kofu always got like this once she was in the shop. The bad attitude and the even worse work ethic just melted off of her, impurities boiling away in the furnace heat until all that was left was the distilled essence of a blacksmith. It was that dedication to the craft that had convinced Liz to stay on as her 'apprentice' long after she would have otherwise given up in frustration.

And her patience was slowly starting to pay off. Liz observed as the ringing metal sang to her sensitive ears, the noises picked apart and analyzed, answers bubbling to the surface. It had taken the better part of the last two and a half months to learn that trick. But once Kofu had told her about it, Liz hadn't been able to stop listening, trying to hear it as she passed the other shops and watched the other smiths at work.

Now, while she wasn't a master at it, she had started to understand what the metal was trying to tell them, its notes pure and clear.

'We got the alloying spot on this time.' Liz pumped her fist.

It was a little thing, not really that important on its own. The art of sword-crafting was not something that could be learned just by leveling up a number, it was a complex, difficult, and beautiful expression of craftsmanship, and Liz knew she was a long way from making a quality sword, much less a masterpiece blade like the Dual Deciders or the special order they were working on right now. But the little signs of progress had sent her heart racing and filled her with pride.

Months living with the sometimes neurotic, always finicky Leprechaun had begun to change her in other ways as well, Liz crossed her arms, biceps growing with the first real muscle she'd ever bothered to put on. She'd helped do inventory at her family's store IRL, but there was no such thing as 'light lifting' in a blacksmith's shop, whether she was cleaning or working the bellows, Liz worked her ass off doing hard physical labor, and her body grew stronger because of it.

"I just hope I don't end up with freakish biceps like hers." Liz muttered out loud.

"What was that about my biceps," A venomous little growl startled Liz from her thoughts, "Oh Apprentice of Mine?" The grinding wheel was spinning down quietly on its journal bearings. Kofu was slowly raising her mask, sharp gold eyes appraising Lisbeth.

'Crap!' Liz thought fast. Thankfully, she wasn't too pressed for an excuse as the bell hung beside the workshop door chimed to announce a customer.

"I'll go get that." Liz backed away slowly and then scrammed. Geez, she was going to be a pain in the ass for the rest of the day, all because she hadn't kept her mouth shut! 'This customer better be a big spender.' Liz hoped. Nothing improved the other girl's mood like seeing a lot of zeros on the invoice.

Not that she was usually that bad, Liz admitted to herself as she made her way down the narrow hall. Other than taking her work seriously, Kofu had practically become obsessive about sharing everything she now knew with Liz, she'd even started calling her by name, sometimes.

Lisbeth tried to tell herself it would be alright, she and Kofu got along after all. 'She's also Kofu.' Liz's shoulders slumped, yeah, better hope the customer was here to buy..

Right then, do or die time, time to put on a winning smile and go get'm! Her domestic harmony depended on it.

"Welcome to Kofu's Sword Shop." Liz declared for the benefit of anyone who had managed to miss the sign outside. The lack of reply was sort of anticlimactic.

When she got a good look at the customer, at first Liz thought she was dealing with another Leprechaun, no one else should have hair that pink. The customer turned from examining one of the swords situated in the display case. Yep, definitely pink, and also female. It took Liz way too long to realize why she found that weird. Then she noticed, ears flat and round, human?

A local.

Liz paused to take her in. "Good day." The woman gathered her arms up in her cloak and gave a small dip of the head. "Would you happen to be the proprietor?" Definitely human. Liz decided.

"Ah . . . The shop owner is in back." Liz supplied as she hurried behind the counter. "I'm her . . . Apprentice." Liz frowned as the woman grew immediately distracted after hearing her answer, squinting as she examined the rapiers that held place of pride.

"Would you mind getting her please." The woman said. "I was recommended here by a previous customer." Then, she went right back to looking over the merchandise.

Right, keep your cool. "I'm sorry." Liz did her best to stay calm. She didn't appreciated being walked over on the way to her boss. Kofu had hired her to deal with customers like this after all. "Could I get a name first?"

"I thought I'd already given it?" And then a small shake of the head. "My apologies, I am Karin Desiree de La Valliere." She answered. "I'm here about purchasing a replacement for this."

The customer placed a cloth wrapped parcel on the counter top. After receiving permission, Liz parted the cloth to reveal a thoroughly mangled sword-wand. The Leprechaun couldn't help but wince in sympathy for the unfortunate weapon.

"You really did a number on it." She said without thinking, too busy examining the fracture edges, failed in yielding rather than simple fatigue, Liz could tell by the subtle warping and signs of plastic deformation along one side, and then simply -snap-. The Noble woman grimaced, brown eyes glinting with something very close to anger. "I mean . . . Just a sec and I'll go get my boss." Liz appeased.

Yikes. Caught between Kofu and the customer, a bad place to be. And de La Valliere . . . Where had she heard that name before? One of the Local Noble houses. Pretty important too. Weren't they the ones financing the new furnaces? Definitely not a good start to her day!

Liz didn't hear much noise coming from the back room, the smith had finished with grinding and moved on to the final polishing of the blade, a process that would take most of the rest of the day to do right, or so Kofu insisted. Then came mounting the blade to its hilt and last minute finishing prior to delivery. Which meant Liz was going to be flying through the night to get the order to Tristania on time.

But it was definitely going to be worth it.

"The customer wants to see you." Liz poked her head back through the door. As expected, the sword smith was lost again in her work, whispering Faerie chants under her breath while she worked over the face of the blade with a fine cotton cloth.

"Can it wait?" Kofu looked up annoyed. "I really don't wanna."

"But you wanna make lots of money." Liz pressed her lips thin, appealing to her boss's greed. "She's a buyer." Kofu's ears perked. "And I think she's a high class noblewoman, so she probably once something fancy andexpensive."

The smith fell silent again, leaving Liz to wonder if she was just going to be ignored. In that case, marching over to the chair, the smith's apprentice squatted down beside the stool and took hold.

"Hey, what'er you . . .?"

"Lift . . ." Liz grunted " . . . With the legs!"


That got her attention, Kofu tumbling from her seat and coming perilously close to fumbling the sword blade from the workbench.

The Smith gasped as shot back up straight. "Why you . . . That's a dirty trick to play on your master you ungrateful . . ."

"Customer." Liz repeated. More importantly. "Paying customer."

Faerie eyes met in a battle of wills.

Torn between her discomfort over dealing with people and her need to do so, at last, the Leprechaun went on mumbling indecent things as she turned to the door, making a big show of how reluctant she was. Probably hoping that Liz would let her splurge on dinner tonight. "Alright, I'm going, I'm going."

The customer was still waiting when they got back, and by the looks of it, she'd heard the racket in the back room. "Just a little spill." Liz explained, all false sweetness as Kofu glared murderously over her shoulder. So much for diplomacy today. Oh well, she'd pick the way she burned.

"I hear you're in the market for a new sword." Kofu stroked her chin as she sidled up to examine the destroyed blade left without comment on the counter top.

"Yes." The Valliere woman said inflectionlessly. "This one has been with me for many years, but . . . first the focus and then the sword itself have given out on me. And both at the worst times." She shook her head, lips pursing unhappily. "It seems it is finally starting to show its age."

Liz's ears perked. She might not have had the customer employee relationship down to a science, but she knew a story behind words when she heard one.

"All things fade with time, I suppose." Kofu said carelessly, earning a swift and unnoticed kick from Liz. You didn't make light when the customer was unhappy.

"All I want to know is can you do it?" The Valliere woman fixed Kofu with a steady gaze. "The sword must be of the highest quality. I will accept nothing less. If not, I can go elsewhere."

Liz cringed, those were fighting words. Whether she knew it or not, Miss Valliere had just challenged the great Smith Kofu whose ego ran as deep as the sea.

The gold haired Leprechaun smiled forcefully. "Heh? Can I do it?" Reaching down to pick up the largest remaining piece of the ruined sword and going over it with an appraising eye. "I'm guessing you want one just like this?"

"As close as possible." Miss Valliere agreed. "And of the highest quality possible. A young man name Kirito told me that you were up to the task."

Liz perked up. Kirito?!

She knew he'd been in a few more scrapes since they'd talked last. He'd been in Goibniu just a week ago looking into, of all things, armor. Well, that made sense, a little bit of extra protection was probably looking a lot more appealing now that it was his precious flesh and blood body that was getting cut up. Just what had that jerk been getting up to recently?

The name didn't go unnoticed by Kofu either. "Super Spriggan recommended you?"

"If that is his title . . . " Miss Valliere said again. "He said to trust your workmanship."

"Take pride in what you do." Kofu said, turning the broken blade to examine its edge down its length, she pinged a nail against the metal and listened, Master and Apprentice frowning as one at the unappetizing noise of metal rife with impurities, and few of them any good.

"Sounds like . . ." Kofu began.

"Too much sulfur." Liz finished. It must have been introduced in the forging process. Well, that was the best that could be expected from locally made metals. The local mages sort of knew what they were doing when they made steel, but they didn't quite know how to extract the impurities they produced in the forging process, at least, not remotely efficiently.

Whether that was just a natural byproduct or something to do with their magic . . . Liz's thoughts trailed off as Kofu answered.

"I can do it." Kofu decided at last. "Just one thing . . ."

"The Foci." Miss Valliere practically read the smith's mind.

"Yeah. I can make an ALfheim Spell-sword." Kofu put the wreckage down. "But I don't know if that would work for your magic."

That didn't seem to bother Miss Valliere as much as Liz would have expected. In fact she already seemed to have given it some thought. "That would be fine." The Noblewoman gave a small wave of her hand. "If you can replicate the channel at the back of that blade, I can have it fitted with a focus later. It's common to have the foci crafted to fit the blade, so it won't be a problem."

Kofu nodded sagely. "Got it. Well then, there's just one other thing to prove . . ."

"Oh?" The Customer's eyes narrowed. Looked like she'd been expecting this.

"Yeah." Kofu folded the sword pieces back up into their fabric parcel. "I'm not just going to sell one of my children to anyone. Super Spriggan must have told you." The smug grin, it was the same one that had gotten Kofu punched all those weeks ago.

Liz turned back to the customer waiting for the reply.

The Noblewoman, eyes closed, brow furrowed, gave a small snort, and then a sigh. "You want me to prove my sword craft."

"A Leprechaun blade means something." Kofu explained matter of factly. "And a sword of the smith Kofu means even more. I can't just let anyone wave them around and give my weapons a bad reputation. You look like you can handle a sword, but I have to see for myself." Without breaking eye contact with the customer, Kofu called over her shoulder. "Apprentice, go get the display case key, I wanna see if she has it in her."

Liz bit down on a curse. "What about finishing the order?" This was due at the parade grounds by tomorrow morning. It would be embarrassing if they couldn't get it there on time. Wasn't Kofu the one who had just been talking about her reputation?

"I'll get right back to it." The master smith worked her shoulders loose, surprisingly, the customer didn't look at all bothered as she removed her own cloak and gloves to make ready. "To save me some time, how about you do the engraving."

Liz stopped her grumbling and looked up. "What? Really?" She'd practiced some as part of her apprenticeship, so she could definitely do it, she just hadn't expected to be asked so soon.

Her boss gave her a mild look of surprise as if she didn't think Liz would find it so amazing. "Yeah. You did work as much on it as me." Probably more keeping the furnace hot, the bellows going, and doing all the unskilled labor intensive work to support the forging process. "You put your soul into it too, so it's only fair, Liz."

"But . . . we haven't pick a name for it yet." It wasn't one of the pattern swords from ALO, this one was on of Kofu's unique creations. A spell-sword specially made for a specific wielder. One who's reputation was so big that even Kofu hadn't complained about making it without seeing her in action.

"You're right." Kofu growled, stroking her chin as if thinking hard. "It's no good for that child not to have a name. So I've been thinking." She suddenly smiled. "I've got it. How about . . . Yeah . . . How about we call it Queen Mab?"