The Heron Kings Rampant Chapter 1

The Heron Kings Rampant Chapter 1

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The Heron Kings Rampant

Chapter One

Master and Apprentice

 

Two lone figures walked the rain-slickened cobblestone streets of Carsolan, shadows long in the moonlight. The sounds and smells of the city danced around them as they made their way through the gloom of coal dust that hung between the carriage station and the laboratory. One of them, a pace ahead, wore the navy blue formal coat of a master alchemist. The other, younger and carrying a stack of papers and books in front of her, wore a plainer gray version of the same.

“Master,” said the teenage apprentice, her voice a bit muffled by the load she carried, “are you sure we’ll be able to deliver the Countess’ order on time? She never gave us a job this big before.”

Castamar nodded with more confidence than he felt. “We’ll deliver Jensine, don’t worry. But you’re right, it’s a tight schedule. Might have a few extra late nights ahead of us.”

“I think the Countess just wants an excuse to make you come see her again soon.” The books couldn’t muffle the bit of impertinence in her voice, no doubt accompanied by a sly grin.

The master stopped in his tracks, and his apprentice almost ran into him. “What,” he said with one raised eyebrow, “would ever make you imply something like that?”

“Oh, come on. You taught me to analyze using all my senses and instincts. It’s not hard to see she likes—”

That will be quite enough. Talk like that can have consequences for those of the Countess’ station. And ours.”

“Don’t see what the big deal is,” Jensine said with a shrug as they continued on their way. “She’s widowed and you’re one of the most respected men of the Commons. What matter if two, um, middle-aged folk—”

“How charitable of you! Tell you what. If you wish, you can explain your impeccable logic to the queen herself when we’re next at court. I’m certain she’ll see the error of society’s ways and reform the whole of it on the spot purely on your expert recommendation. Until then, please keep your lascivious aspersions to yourself, and your mind on alchemy.” The chastisement was robbed of its sting by the hint of amused sarcasm in his words. “There’s lots of work to be done, starting tomorrow.”

“Yes, master.” They crossed an intersection, and down the street the lights of a nighttime fair glowed amid the hum of crowds and scents of a dozen sweet-foods. “Actually,” she said haltingly, in a tone practiced to work on his nerves, “I’ve already set up the natrial calcination. It just needs to be turned on.”

“Good, good.”

“And, I finished rectifying the spirit of Antabolus earlier today. And my notebooks are all up to date…”

Castamar halted again with a sigh. “Then I suppose you’d like to go down to that silly street fair?”

“May I?”

“Fine, fine. Give here.” He took up the pile of documents from his apprentice’s aching arms. She was already halfway across the street when he called her back. “Wait!” Moving the stack to one arm, he fumbled through his coat pocket with a free hand. “Fair’s not much fun without wasting some money at it, I suppose.” He pressed a few silvers into Jensine’s grasp.

“Thanks, master!”

“Don’t stay out too late,” he called to her rapidly disappearing form.

“I won’t!”

“And don’t get your coat dirty!”

“I won’t!”

The alchemist was nearly to the next street when a green flash and a thunderous boom shook the entire block. The papers he carried went flying in all directions. Even before he regained his footing, his blood ran cold as the pitch and timbre of the blast told him exactly what had caused it. Vril. The energetic substance, thought magic by the gullible, was the greatest power of their age, and the most dangerous if mishandled.

He turned to see smoke billowing from somewhere down the street, outlined in orange light. He ran toward the conflagration where the cries of the terrified and the wounded rang out. He rounded a corner to see a banking house pouring smoke and fire from the shattered windows of all three floors, and some of the stonework blasted away entirely. His master’s eye calculated that such destruction would require about two milliliters’ worth of pure Vril. Too much to be gathered in one place by accident. This was deliberate. Half a block past the building, hundreds of fair-goers scattered in panic, some covered in blood. And directly in front of the burning ruin, one small shape lay unmoving among glimmering shards of shattered glass, wearing the coat of an apprentice alchemist.

“Gods…Jensine!”

He stumbled forward in a horrified daze, heedless of the heat of the fire and the rain of gray ash. Its light showed off the damage that the explosion had wrought to his young protégé, with burns and cuts covering the entire right side of her body. Bits of her clothing still smoldered, and he carefully turned her on her side, fearful of making the wounds worse. “Oh, no. Gods, no no no…”

“M…” she mumbled, barely conscious. “Mas…”

“Shh, lie still Jen. You’ll be…you…”

“Sorry…got my coat dirty…”

“Hush.” He looked up at the scattering crowd. “H-help! I need help here!” None paid any heed. A few paces down the alley next to the bank, he could almost make out someone, standing against one of the building’s walls. “Hey, you! Help!” The figure turned and ran down the alley into darkness.

“Shit…” He spotted a large, boxy shape approaching from the fairground and making a racket that could be heard even over the screaming. It was one of the new mechanical street carriages powered by steam boiler. “Stop!” he shouted as it passed. He threw himself up at the driver, climbing into the front seat.

“Whoa! What you doin’ idjit?”

He pulled the handbrake himself, took the driver by the collar of his shirt. Inside the open-air coach behind, three impeccably-dressed passengers shouted in alarm. “My apprentice is hurt! Take us to the hospital. St. Thalia’s is that way.”

“Piss off, we’re gettin’ as far from here as—”

With a disgusted growl the alchemist dug once again through his pockets and tossed whatever money he still had at the driver, the coins bouncing off his craggy face and onto the driver’s seat. “Here. Now you help us or I swear I’ll turn the gold in your teeth to mercury!”

Whether convinced by the money or the idle threat, the driver helped him load Jensine into the carriage against the protests of the other passengers. The car turned down the alley, the quickest route to the hospital. He cradled his apprentice while they rode, and as they passed the wall of the ruined bank, he stared in renewed shock. Scrawled across it in bright white paint were the words, By Order of the Heron Kings.

 

Cast stood over the hospital bed, ignoring the burns decorating his hands and face and gripping the bedpost with white knuckles. Jensine’s shallow breaths rose and fell, her charred cheeks covered in opiphine-laced bandages. The sight set the alchemist aquiver with fury. By Order of the Heron Kings? Could it be true? These days few outside dusty old historians even knew the name as other than childhood tales, fewer still the truths behind it.

The nurses had implored him to leave them to their work. He’d ignored them, what, an hour ago? Longer? The burn ward was beginning to fill up with other victims of the blast. At some point in the small hours of the morning he became aware of someone standing next to him. Not a nurse. He turned his head just enough to regard the intruder, and his neck creaked with ache after not moving for so long.

It was a woman, plain-faced and frowning, of some indeterminate age between thirty and forty. “A tragedy, is it not?” She spoke from beneath a wide-brimmed leather hat that made her look like the villainess from a penny dreadful.

The hint of mockery in her voice was enough to make Cast reach out and grab the lapels of her stormcloud-gray wool jacket and shove her up against the wall. “Who the f—”

“Oh yes, give me an excuse to have you arrested and beaten. I’d enjoy that.” Two large men in similar costume appeared from the periphery of his vision and took hard hold of him. The woman smoothed her jacket and waved them off with a smirk. “It’s all right, I’ll give him that one. Just that one. Leave us a moment.” The goons stepped out into the hallway, and it was only then that Cast noticed the shining gold emblems pinned to their chests. A bird with a snake in its talons. “I came as soon as I heard. My name’s Yacinthe, Master Castamar. I work for—”

“I know who you work for,” Cast growled, “the Cryptarch. What in the twenty-one hells do you want?”

“I should think that’d be obvious. Half the city knows about the blast by now. As for that message painted on the wall, my people are already at work removing it, else there’s be mass panic. Or worse, mass approval.”

Cast jerked his head to the side, giving Yacinthe his full attention. “What do you know of it?”

“Less than you do. You have a file, you know. In our records.”

“I’m flattered.”

“You should be! As a prominent citizen of Carsolan it’s the Cryptarchy’s policy. I reviewed it on the way here. You made a minor study in history as a University student, so you tell me, why now? Why would the Heron Kings, assuming they still exist, launch an attack like this? Why now, and where did they get Vril?”

“My studies are twenty years out of date, and I don’t work with Vril. Why ask me?”

“The last time any of it was lost, getting it back was very politically costly. You know that better than anyone. During your brief military career you saw what happened when Duke Theofeld and his bungling Fist rebels got their hands on just a few milliliters.”

Cast instinctively rubbed the spot on his thigh where the old wound both gave him powers of weather prognostication that amused party guests and robbed him of any hope of fathering children. “A whole village. And you lot just stood by and let it blow.”

“The outrage lost the rebels their remaining support,” Yacinthe said with a shrug. “Acceptable losses. But I’m not here to debate history. Who could get hold of Vril these days, and how? If they wanted to destroy a building, powder would be much easier—”

“I don’t know!” Cast literally threw his hands up. “I don’t understand any of this. We alchemists aren’t wizards, whatever the Commons think. The Heron Kings disappeared from history decades ago, died out through the march of what we call civilization. But I’ll tell you this much; I’m going to find out. Jensine’s been in my care ever since I plucked her out of the slums your boss keeps dumb and docile with black market opiphine. Someone’s going to pay for this.”

“Any insights you could provide—”

“No. The very fact of this attack proves your own incompetence, or your complicity. I mean I’m going to find out, personally. Whatever the cost.”

The agent suppressed a laugh, badly. “With all due respect Master Castamar, you are no longer a young man.”

“No,” Cast replied. “No, I’ve fewer years left to lose than you, and I’m not asking your permission. If your boss wants my cooperation he’ll back me in this. Otherwise who knows how many politically costly facts will reveal themselves.”

The agent bristled in irritation. “The Office of the Cryptarch does not take kindly to threats, alchemist.”

Cast turned back to Jensine, her breaths still shallow and weak. “Neither do I. And knowing better than most the dangers of weaponized Vril, I can assure you that right now, you face no greater threat than that.”

 

Nothing more you can do. The words burned like the Vril itself. The nurses and even a chief physician had told him so a dozen times before he’d leave Jen’s bedside, hours after Yacinthe had gone. He felt so helpless, a respected man of natural philosophy, feared by the ignorant and even some of the powerful, yet there wasn’t a thing he could do to help the one person he owed the most loyalty.

Her breathing and heart rate had stabilized at least, her burns treated and covered where possible, and she now drifted in an oblivion only partly helped by opiphine. All that remained was to wait, to see if the natural processes of the human body that not even the wisest doctors really understood would see her back to life.

So he’d dug his fingernails out of divots clawed into the bedpost, threw on his coat and trudged home in a half-daze. He walked past the bombed-out bank, where more agents stepped among the ruin of brick and glass, looking for who knew what while city watch guards beat back crowds of gawkers. Past where he’d dropped his papers, finding he had neither the energy nor inclination to bend over and retrieve them. At some point he turned onto Fleshold Street, a broad thoroughfare by necessity as it hosted several industrial concerns, and completely hemmed in on both sides by the jagged, chimneyed expanse of the rooftops high above. Cast was almost run down several times by vehicles of both the horse- and steam-powered variety, numbed into apathy as he was.

Dawn was just breaking when Cast came at last to his building. The sun rose directly behind the huge Polytheon temple at the far end of the street, sending the long shadow of its spire racing across cobblestones like some great accusing finger. Already shopkeepers were raising their storefronts, street vendors yelling out “Eel pies, hot eel pies!” to men trudging home stinking from their jobs collecting night soil, and knockers-up pounding away at the shuttered windows of clients who would probably rather remain abed.

Even among such a modern metropolis, Cast’s house stood out in its defiance of the conventions of the society he’d fought to move in, for the renovated manufactory served as both residence and laboratory. It was a familiar place now made eerily silent by Jensine’s absence. A foyer opened onto a reception hall nearly fifteen yards on a side where he’d receive guests, customers and potential clients. It was bare but for a raised dais in the center with comfortable couches and chairs around a low table, all atop a burgundy rug. On either side, curved girders rose up to support a loft level that ran around the front and sides of the building. These rooms were the residences— his chambers, his apprentice’s, and the service rooms. The ceiling loomed far above both these levels, giving the place a cavernous feeling but also enough ventilation for the building’s other function.

Past the reception hall and the winding stairs on either side, the rear half of the brick and iron structure was fitted out with work benches, running water basins, and giant overhead hoods with ducts leading to the roof. Windows stretching two stories high illuminated every surface, cluttered with strange equipment made of brass, glass, and materials few in the world could identify. Cast had turned half his home into a showcase for the most modern alchemy laboratory ever conceived, and the workings of the craft, warts and all, were on display for the edification of any customer who cared to look. This radical departure from convention had earned him some disapproval from elder masters, but also a great deal of business and notoriety. The cost of maintaining enough air flow to keep his clients from breathing toxic byproducts of the art had more than paid for itself.

Sparing only a moment to verify that none of his experiments had ignited in his absence, Cast peeled off his coat and tossed it at the foot of the stairway that led up to his bedchamber. He made it only a few steps down the balcony hallway when a frantic figure spotted him from across the way by the servant’s wing.

“Oh!” came a distressed cry that rang out in the sepulchral space. “There you are! Stop right there!” Not for the first time, Cast was inexplicably driven to obey commands from his own housekeeper, a skill he respected but didn’t always appreciate. The Cynuvik widow ruled Cast’s house with an iron fist, and now tore across the hall like a bull moose with hands outstretched in exasperation. “Where in the names of all the hells have you been! I heard the explosion, but— wait, where’s the young miss?”

“Mrs. Velthusi, I, well…”

“Well what?”

“Something’s happened.” Cast explained the incident as best he could, and soon Velthusi was fighting back tears. For all her air of cantankerous authoritarianism, Mrs. Velthusi was the only live-in servant, and thus the three of them functioned more like a strange kind of family than any of them cared to admit.

“How?” Velthusi demanded, “How could this happen? Those useless city watch thugs, what do we pay tax for? Bombs, in the middle of the city!”

“I know, I—”

“We’d be safer living across the Canal with the gangs!”

“Mrs. Velthusi! Rest assured Jensine will have the very best of care, and I will find out who did this, I’ll spare no expense!” Cast’s shaky voice echoed across the open space, and he slumped against a railing to steady himself.

“Of course Master Castamar, I know that. That’s the only reason I put up with you. Oh, I must go and see her, the poor dear! Who knows what slop they’re feeding her—”

“Mrs. Velthusi, she…she’s not conscious. And I don’t know when she will be again.”

The housekeeper wept openly, and Cast was suddenly very aware of the fact that he had no idea how to comfort her. “Listen, I’m not going to be doing regular business for the next few…well, I don’t know how long. I’m not sure how regular your pay will be—”

“Don’t you fret about that,” Velthusi snapped, waving a bony finger in his face. “You just do what needs doing, I’ll manage. I’ve been embezzling from you for years anyway.”

Cast managed a tired, bitter smile. “I thought you might be. Thank you.”

 

If you enjoyed this sample, please check out the novel that comes before it, out now:

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