The burning-dead-flowers smell of solder hung sharp in the air. It was paradise.
On Thomas Meade, smiles died early deaths. But he’d been friends, if you could call it that, with Keg for a long time, so at the sight of the Master Device Smith, hunched over and intent on the mechanical brains of a tiny box chronometer, he smiled. Or rather, his mouth jerked up on one side.
“You’ll have to wait. I’m—”
“Right in the middle of something,” interrupted Meade. “You’ll say that when the Devil comes for your soul, Cornelius Keg.”
The smith shot a sarcastic look from under his greying, bushy brows at the dark wide-shouldered shape of the man towering in his doorway, picked up a fine screwdriver and went back to work, his lower lip caught up on one side as he concentrated. The workbench was cluttered with glass bottles, one lying on its side, its contents spilling out on the ironwood. Other bottles stuffed with copper springs and small metallic gears stood within reach, some filled with anonymous sizes of brass screws. A tin of pencils, a fine, black-tipped soldering iron – still smoking, leather finger-press bellows, scraps of sketches held down by lumps of ore or half-finished mechanisms all lay waiting to be needed.
“Is there anything to drink?” Meade asked pushing the door closed.
Keg hunched up a petulant shoulder and jerked his chin at the massively chased, silver samovar on the shelf.
Meade swung the satchel off his shoulder and thumped it down on the end of the workbench. Dust coughed and hung in the air before sinking back with a sigh. Dropping his hat on top of the bag, he unhooked one of the samovar’s silver cups and twisted the tap. The sour taste of the liquid did little to quench his thirst. Another swig was even less helpful. He tossed the cup back on the shelf and surveyed the room.
Large mechanisms stood, one could almost say lurked, in the workshop. Most were decorated with small tags carrying the name of the device and their owners in a delicate calligraphy of twirls and ink. The rest of these marvels of copper, brass and bronze were the smith’s own creation. And nowhere in Borgin Drauma could there be found devices like those of Cornelius Keg.
Meade liked being here. It amused him. He was always impressed, even slightly intimidated by the craftsmanship almost casually littering the place. And he wasn’t often amused or impressed. And, outside of this room, never intimidated.
There was one device he’d never seen before. Its long, curved arms rotated in delicate arcs around its spine, rising and falling as a brass ball dropped from one spoon-like appendage to another. He sauntered over to get a closer look.
“What’s this?” Meade flicked the sharp end of a flat copper coil. It bounced nervously.
“Leave that alone.” Keg’s voice was as pointed and anxious as the coil.
Meade bent down, inspecting the device more closely. Deep inside the vibrating centre of its heart, a dozen tiny cogs clicked their way through tight, neat arcs around the device’s power source. The pulsating lump of resin was held in one of the most delicate yet intricate clasps he’d ever seen.
“What does it do?” Careful not to touch any of the working parts, Meade stretched out his forefinger until the resin was within reach. He could feel the silence tighten behind him. The corner of his mouth lifted in amusement once more. A sharp blue light crackled wickedly through the air.
“Sst!” He jerked back his now blistered finger.
“Serves you right,” Keg grunted. He put down his fine screwdriver and twisted the telescopic monocle on the headgear strapped to his forehead away from his left eye. It hung, drooping slightly, an overweight antenna on a mildly demented bug, the other lenses sticking up bizarrely on their own stems.
“You’d better show me what you’ve got, then you can go and leave me in peace.” Keg climbed down from his tall stool, muttering under his breath.
Although Meade was over six feet, Keg was short by anyone’s standards. He made up for it with genius. No one could turn blueprints into devices as easily, or as magnificently as he could. Which was the reason he was the Master Device Smith in Borgin Drauma. An unspoken competition existed among the city’s Most Respectful Guild of Device Smiths to create a blueprint that would finally foil his legendary skill. It gave him immense satisfaction to continually prove them wrong. There was no part he couldn’t build, no matter how small or convoluted.
Meade pulled a linen column out of his satchel and, unrolling it as he went, carried it across to the oval survey board standing under the only window in the room. Keg followed, climbing the two or three stairs curling up against the wall on the other side of the table, bringing him almost to Meade’s eye level.
“There’s no maker’s mark on it,” said Meade as he flattened the blueprint. Keg twisted the clips on the table’s edge to hold it in place. Even these were miniature masterpieces. Copies of the stone gargoyles, those tragic, extinct beasts that jutted out from the corners of the Patent Master’s Hall.
“Well, that may not matter much. Every smith leaves their signature in one way or another.”
Meade knew that for Keg, there was nothing more intoxicating than a new blueprint; that he revelled in the ritual of the first examination.
The smith cracked his knuckles, rubbed his fists together in delight, placed his hands on either side of the board and bent over with anticipation. “What have you brought me this time?” Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, savouring the aroma of the ferro-gallate.
Meade leaned against a thick wooden pillar to wait for the sigh of satisfaction that always concluded the little ceremony.
It didn’t come.
He glanced at the small man. Keg had gone completely still. He almost wasn’t breathing. The smith’s face grew paler, filling with a deepening fear.
Meade’s eyes narrowed, a frown tightening on his forehead. He pushed himself upright. “Keg?”
Keg dragged his gaze off the plan and stared at him, horror etched into his skin. “What did the Patent Master say when he gave it to you?”
“He wasn’t in a good mood.”
“Death?” Keg’s voice was almost a whisper.
Meade wasn’t sure he’d heard right. Nobody spoke to him like that. “What?”
“Get out!” Keg’s voice rose.
Meade stepped forward, looming over the table. “What is this device?”
Keg erupted, scrabbling at the desk, ripping the blueprint violently off the board. Small bits tore, trapped under the gargoyles’ tight fists. “Get out! And take this infernal thing with you!” He was hysterical, shaking and pale. He scrunched up the blueprint, throwing it at Meade.
An eyebrow leapt up Meade’s forehead. “Keg, what is it?”
“I will have no head with this. Get out. Get out!”
Meade had never seen the smith like this. He knew pushing him for more information now would be a waste of time. He tucked the crushed sheet into one of the cavernous pockets of his greatcoat, shoved on his hat and swept up his satchel as he strode out.
In the street though, he paused and looked back into the workshop. The room stood in shocked silence. Golden dust motes, disturbed by the unexpected rage and fear were drifting, searching for a place to settle once more.
Beneath the table where he had collapsed, Keg was clutching his knees to his chest, rocking himself backwards and forwards, whimpering, tears rolling slowly down his face.
The samovar pinged.
Copyright Elaine Dodge 2013