Zur Gozrimaw’s iron mask sat heavily on his face, but he did not bow his head. Instead, he held his chin high, his back straight, his gaze unwavering. If the other members of the Grey Table could see his expression, it honestly would not have been too great a difference from the mask: it was steely, calm, collected. There was a time for burning coal, and a time for cooling waters. Such was the word of the First Smith.
“We do not allow outsiders into the Irontower,” said Thun Doshrigaw, from the supplicant’s position at the center of the table. The other members of the smithsworn council ringed him, watching him, judging him, as the First Smith was judged by the marblemen. “Our law is clear.”
“Our law states that no man or woman born of Fallow tree beyond this valley may set eyes on the secrets of our tower,” said Arron Caoimgharaw, of Steel Wrought. He wore no mask: instead, he wore at least one ring on every finger, myriad things made of copper and bronze and iron and even gold. His bare chest shone with sweat, and he wore a steel choker around his neck: a reminder of the First Smith’s sacrifice. “Only those brought here by the hand of the Ladies may inherit their blessings.”
“A dull knife is useless, Arron, for it has no point,” growled Thun. Zur narrowed his eyes, although the rest of his body did not move. Thun had spent too much time outside the tower, fraternizing with the baymen, breathing their rusting sea air. That was no way to talk to a revered forgestoker.
“The girl is blind,” said Arron, a faint smugness to his voice. “She has no eyes with which to set.”
“Arron Caoimgharaw, what mockery do you make of the First Smith’s edicts?” shouted Thun, and even from behind his mask Zur could see the man’s livid expression. “Our law is iron. It does not bend.”
One of the sitting members of the Grey Table chuckled, shoulders shaking despite the constant impassivity of his mask. Jak Surramow: a good-humored man, well-liked among the apprentices, less so among his peers. “You have worked with brittle metal too long, then, Thun,” he said. “Steel folds.”
Thun bristled. “Are the teachings of the First Smith a joke to you, Jak?”
“Not as much as you,” said Jak Surramow, and the disdain was evident in his voice. “Listen to yourself, prattling on about a cripple girl like she were some marble warrior come to slay us all. You shame us, Thun Doshrigaw.”
“You are setting a dangerous precedent, Arron,” said Thun, ignoring Jak. “Allowing outsiders into the tower so freely.”
“You grasp for gold in an exhausted mine,” said Arron, heavily. “Precedent has already been set. Did not Nal Kershiwaw allow outsiders into the Irontower, when he invited the clansmen to plan his ascent to the throne?”
Zur smirked. Arron’s knowledge of the tower’s history was near encyclopedic; it was rumored that he never forgot a word of what he read, and would spend hours staring at the ceiling, flipping through the annals of the First Smith without ever so much as touching a page. Those rumors were true, of course, but for a different person.
A small blade cut as deep as a large one, so long as it was hidden. Such was the word of the First Smith.
Even if Arron didn’t have Zur’s prodigious memory, the forgestoker had a respectable one nonetheless. And if he ever needed help, Zur would provide it, although he did not like to speak at these council meetings. Better for the Grey Table to forget that he was even there.
Zur could actually see Thun changing tact, see the cogs in his brain working as he rounded on Surramow: an easy opponent, for an emotional argument. “She is not just some cripple girl. Do you think Han Luratah decided to make the First Smith’s sacrifice without warning? She even has the two older ones in her thrall. She has no tabula. She has no soul.”
Jak sat up, evidently about to protest, but Arron raised a hand. For good measure, Zur looked Jak’s way, and though neither could see the other’s face beneath their masks, Jak slumped visibly.
“You would do well to remember who you are supplicating to,” said Arron, dryly. “Han Luratah, may the Ladies Fall and Summer forge his soul, died in a battle among wild mercenaries and skilled Hag Gar Gan warriors. You would have us believe that, among all these great fighters, this twelve-summer girl killed Han? Furthermore, neither of the two adults have been ensorcelled by the girl; they have adopted her, to fill a void in their lives. We know of this happening, among the child havens beyond the valley. And if you had actually been convinced by the bayman plutocrat’s auctioneering prattle, then we may yet send you back to the apprentice’s quarters tonight, Thun Doshrigaw.”
Thun spluttered and gaped.
“For each radical piece of evidence you proffer before us, there is an alternative, reasonable explanation. Furthermore, your conduct has been shameful, and unworthy of one who walks the smith’s path. You have failed in the mission for which you left the Irontower, and you have spent too long among the baymen and their licentiousness.” Arron drew himself up, raising his voice. “For these reasons, I deny your plea, and confine you to the lower levels of the tower, until the Lady Winter departs and you have seen the error of your ways.”
“You did not see her!” shouted Thun, standing, spittle flying from his mouth. “You did not see the way she crushed him underfoot! You did not hear the way she screamed!”
Zur moved quickly. He pushed his seat out as he stood, heel twisting against the floor before he launched himself over the table and vaulted towards Thun. His arm wrapped around Thun’s neck, and he brought the man low, locking him in a chokehold as strong as steel.
“Take him away,” said Arron, dismissively.
“Enough!” Thun wrestled his way free out of Zur’s grip, and brushed his robes off. “I shall see myself out. I can retain that much dignity, at least.”
Thun stalked away, his footsteps echoing throughout the chamber as Zur quietly resumed his seat. The other members of the Grey Table rose and shuffled away, whispering amongst each other in low voices. Zur did not participate. Gossip was rust upon the honed speech of honorable men. Such was the word of the First Smith.
Arron beckoned him over as he rose. The two of them walked together, to the opposite side of the chamber. These stairs led up. The others led down.
Zur admired the staircase as he walked. It twisted clockwise as it went up, so that if any invader happened to come, they would find their right hands impaired, while defenders coming down from the top would have the longer swing. It was a small, clever thing. The Irontower was full of small, clever things.
They walked, Arron jingling with every step, Zur silent. He had yet to take off his iron mask. It was almost more comforting, to have his face obscured by the grim metal visage.
“Do you believe him?” asked Arron, as they climbed.
“Regarding the girl?” Zur pursed his lips, although Arron could see none of that while Zur still wore the mask. “I have seen wild children kill grown men. It is no great feat, even if it were true.”
“But a man in our armor? Wielding our sword? It does not reflect well on us.”
Zur shrugged. “Shall we send her into the Greenskull Caverns, then? The men of the valley grow more skittish every day. They would be grateful that the Ladies had sent a warrior to slay the evils within that cave.”
“Hmmph.” Arron did not look at Zur, and Zur did not look at him. There was nothing to see, either way. “And her tabula? She has yet to produce it, and yet her master has not called her back yet.”
“That speaks to nothing,” said Zur, curtly. “Tabula are best kept hidden. Even under the threat of death, I would not produce mine.”
Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder, and the towerman stiffened. “You are not ready to follow in the First Smith’s footsteps, yet,” said the forgestoker. To Zur, his tone sounded almost patronizing. “Martyrdom may be honorable, but too often it is also forgotten. We forget easily the names of the dead.”
Zur did not say anything. Lives were petty things, compared to the secrets of the tower. Such was the last word of the First Smith.
“There is the matter of the adults,” said Arron, slowly. “The…parents, as it were.”
“Where are they?” Zur’s hand drifted to his belt, where he kept his knives. It was always better, to know where one’s enemies were.
“I hear they are camping outside the Greenskull Caverns.” Arron chuckled. “An imprudent decision.”
“I concur,” said Zur, flatly.
“There is…” Arron paused. “There is some resemblance. The girl has the woman’s sharp features, the same lithe build. She has flaxen hair, like the man. And the tone of her skin is a mix between them.”
“We have seen this in the gardens,” said Zur. He didn’t mean gardens near the Irontower, no, not even gardens that still existed today. The books had taught him this, and he remembered. “Tall sprouts and short sprouts shall produce a middling offspring. The seed of flowers with red petals and white shall have pink petals, or white petals spotted red, or red and white petals alternating. The essence of the parents is inherited by the children.”
“Hmm,” said Arron.
“Hmm,” agreed Zur.
Arron’s step faltered. He stood before an open window, staring out the Irontower from their lefty perch, so high above the rest of the valley. Chill winter air blew here, so frigid that Zur felt his mask might freeze to his face. Impressive as the metal sheeting of the tower might have been, it didn’t help much with insulation.
“Do you think the doorkeeper was right, to allow the child entrance?” asked Arron, staring at the window, seemingly unfazed by the chill even though his chest was bare. They said that the fires of the furnaces burned forever in the hearts of forgestokers. They, of course, were the voices of the dead, still whispering to Zur through the annals of the past.
“He has cause undue trouble for us. Made us brittle, when we should be strong,” said Zur, standing by the window, gazing out at the valley as well. It was dry and barren, but it was theirs. Beyond the mountain pass, the rest of Albumere laid.
Zur’s hand tightened around the hilt of his knife. Soon, that would be theirs, too.
“The doorkeeper acted on his conscience,” said Arron. “Would you have left the girl in the cold?”
Though a towerman’s hands must be sheathed in steel, his heart must burn strong enough to melt it. Such was the word of the First Smith. “It is good that he took pity on the girl. Less so that he did not think it through. She was not alone. She had a good chance, to survive the wilds, even in the winter.”
“Strange, for her to seek refuge in the Irontower. Technically, we still own her.”
“You cannot own that which has no tabula. A man that has slain a marble soldier may take his hammer. A man that has slain a Hag Gar Gan rider may take his saddle. When the hammer and the saddle are broken, the man who holds them feels no pain, sees no glimpse of the next world. He cannot call them back when they are lost, and as such they are not truly his. These are things with no soul, which change hands by the will of the Ladies.”
Arron wrinkled his nose. “A Treatise on Slaves and the Holy Hollows, by Ik Yor Gat?”
“Yes,” said Zur.
“Hmm,” said Arron, nodding. He paused. “So you truly do think that the girl has no tabula?”
“I did not say that.”
“I did not ask you what you said.”
Zur did not reply.
Arron sighed, and turned away from the window. “In the grand scheme of things, she matters little. She will leave soon, I hope.”
“Was that a statement, or a request?” Zur did not leave the window. Through his mask, which was so cold it felt like it had melded to his face, so cold that the mask really was his face, he saw the rest of Albumere, beyond the tower.
He had memorized every book in the Irontower’s prodigious library. He had counted every stone in it, every step leading from the bottom to the top. He had embraced the teachings of the First Smith, then rejected them, then rediscovered them. The tower had been his whole life.
He wanted what laid beyond it, so badly.
Zur did not move from the window, bathed in harsh winter sunlight. Arron stood in the shadows above him, and though Zur wore the mask, it was the forgestoker’s face which could not be seen for the darkness.
“We have word from our friends in Jhidnu,” said Arron, at last. “Thun Doshrigaw did that much for us, at least.”
“Will the east stand with us?” asked Zur.
“The plutocrats still chafe at the loss of their trade routes, but they are an indolent people, prone to softness of will. They will not send soldiers.”
Zur sneered. He was not surprised, but he was still disappointed. “We did not ask for soldiers.”
“The Seat of Winter is prepared to back our claim. The Stronghold will no doubt oppose us, but they will be glad to see Ironhide dead.” Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder. “I must warn you, Zur, that once Albumere has one less a king, I can guarantee nothing. The citizens of the Seat may not even recognize a new claimant.”
“Good steel cuts once and cuts deep,” said Zur. “Such is the word of the First Smith.”
“They will not recognize the First Smith, either.”
“Then they will be untaught, and their ignorance shall make them weak.” Zur turned to face the revered forgestoker, and slowly, delicately, removed the mask. His voice sounded strange to him, when it was not muffled by a plate of steel. “I am prepared for what is to come. I will do what I must do.”
“Then here is where we part ways, Zur Gozrimaw,” said Arron, his hand resting lightly on Zur’s chin. Zur’s skin tingled at his touch. Was it the heat of the forgestoker’s hand, compared to the cold of the smithsworn’s face? Was it simply the fact that his face had not felt a human touch for a time longer than even Zur could remember? Something else entirely?
Zur looked up, eyes shining. It was finally happening. Everything he had dreamed of, come to fruition.
“Goodbye, and good luck, old friend,” said Arron. “May the Lady Summer guide your hand.”
“And may the Lady Fall watch your step,” said Zur, bowing. “Goodbye, Arron Caiomgharaw.”
They turned away at the same time, Arron higher into the tower, Zur deeper. It was a long way down from where he stood, but Zur moved quickly. His robes flapped around his feet as he strapped his mask back on. He would need more practical clothing, soon. Silent clothing.
He walked through the council chambers, now deserted. From there, he walked down the spiral staircase, past the masters’ forges, where he could hear the forever ring of hammer on anvil, see the forever glow of the red fires. He walked past the library levels, where all the stored knowledge of the Irontower was kept. This was not Shira Hay, where the nomads stored any semi-legible tripe they could find in a library open to all: not Shira Hay, where they wandered the world and let ignorance poison their minds. The towermen knew the power of secrets. Only the most dedicated among them were allowed access to the libraries.
Zur Gozrimaw walked on, deeper and deeper, closer and closer to the ground, his heart thudding in his chest. He passed the journeyman’s quarters, and the women’s chambers, and the cheap iron forges, and the place for apprentices, which had no name and deserved none. Zur reached the bottom, and straightened himself.
He entered the doorkeeper’s room.
The towermen were not allowed worldly possessions. Their work belonged to the Irontower, and for it, they were given food and clothing and shelter. The coin their metalcraft earned went to the good of all. Tools were given according to rank and seniority. Zur’s hand drifted to his knives. Those counted as tools.
The doorkeeper kept the supplies. Any man who wished to leave the Irontower had to go through him first.
Zur paused. “Where is the doorkeeper?” he asked, to the girl sitting on his bed. The Irontower had no guest chambers; he supposed this was where she stayed, while she stayed. Her legs swung restlessly from where she sat, although her hands were folded neatly on her lap. She scratched her chest, and cocked her head, not looking at Zur. There wouldn’t have been much of a point.
“The door opened, but it sounds like you’re still talking behind it,” said the girl. She clicked her tongue, and, despite himself, Zur flinched. “But you’re inside the room.”
Zur looked around, but he saw no sign of the doorkeeper within the room. Was someone else demanding entrance to the Irontower? How many more strangers sought to steal their secrets?
“You’re wearing a mask,” said the girl, suddenly. “U-ha did it once, I remember. For a ritual.”
“Where is the doorkeeper?” Zur asked, again.
“He said he’d be back soon.” The girl stood, and though the blindfold was wrapped tightly around her head, she walked with surprising confidence towards him. “Are you going somewhere? Outside?”
“Yes,” said Zur, curtly. He did not like talking to this girl. For some reason, it felt like his mask did not protect him here.
“If you go, could you…could you check on my friends, please?” The girl wrung her hands together. “The man and the woman who came with me. Could you see if they’re OK?”
“I could,” said Zur. He squinted. There was a resemblance. He had only caught a brief glimpse of the other two—the woman had been yelling as the girl walked into the tower, causing such a ruckus that all the apprentices had come swarming to see—but he could see it, nonetheless.
Was the girl really their natural-born daughter? There was no precedent for this, as far back as Zur could remember, in all the books that he had read.
There was a shuffling from behind him, and he turned to see the doorkeeper stride into the room. His features were…average. As much as Zur prided himself on stealth, he could never have matched the doorkeeper’s innate ability to appear completely, utterly forgettable. His hair was cut short in the style of the apprentices, his robes were clean and nondescript, and he had the air of someone who would keep on plodding on no matter what one said or did to him. Even as the doorkeeper turned away, Zur found himself forgetting what his face looked like.
“Going somewhere?” the doorkeeper asked, mildly.
Zur straightened. The doorkeeper and the girl were both inconsequential, compared to what was to come. He had no time to waste, puzzling over them. “Yes,” he said. “I need supplies, and new clothes.”
“Enough to reach the Seat of the King.”