Cornelius Keg was hunched over his large desk, working amongst the clutter of glass bottles, some filled with anonymous sizes of brass screws, one lying on its side, its contents spilling out on the iron-wood bench. Other bottles stuffed with copper springs and small iron gears stood within reach. A tin of screwdrivers, a fine, black-tipped soldering iron, leather finger-press bellows, scraps of sketches held down by lumps of ore and half-finished mechanisms, all lay waiting to be needed. The burning-dead-flowers smell of solder hung sharply in the air.
Some of the larger mechanisms stood around the room, wanting attention or collection, decorated with small tags tied with rough twine carrying the name of the device in a delicate calligraphy of twirls and ink. But most of these marvels of copper, brass and bronze were Keg’s own creation. And nowhere in Borgin Drauma could there be found devices like those of Cornelius Keg.
He was concentrating intently on the mechanical brains of a tiny box chronometer when the door swung open. There was never very much light, but what there was now splintered around the wide shoulders of the man towering in the doorway.
“You’ll have to wait. I’m—”
“Right in the middle of something,” interrupted a cynical voice. “You’ll say that when the Devil comes for your soul, Cornelius.”
Keg shot a ferocious look from under his bushy brows. The tall man’s mouth jerked up on one side. On Thomas Meade, smiles died early deaths.
“Is there any milk to drink?” Meade asked
Keg hunched up a petulant shoulder and jerked his chin at the gleaming, massively carved, 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.
Meade liked being here. It amused him. He was always impressed, even slightly intimidated by the craftsmanship that almost casually littered the place. He wasn’t often amused or impressed, and outside of this room, never intimidated.
There was one particular device he’d never seen before. 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, intricate clasps he’d ever seen. There was a reason Cornelius Keg was the Master Device Smith.
“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. His mouth twitched again. A sharp blue light crackled wickedly through the air.
“Sst!” He jerked his hand back. The tip of his finger was blistered.
“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, until it hung, drooping slightly, an overweight antenna on a mildly demented bug, the other lenses sticking up bizarrely on their own stems. He sighed heavily.
“You’d better show me what you’ve got, then you can go and leave me in peace.” He 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 Cornelius Keg. An unspoken competition existed among the city’s Most Worshipful 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 fine linen column out of his sack and, unrolling it as he went, carried it across to the large, oval survey board which stood 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, which brought him almost to Meade’s eye level.
Meade flattened the blueprint and 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.
Keg rubbed his hands together in delight. “What have you brought me this time?” He pulled on a pair of fine, almost transparent kid gloves, cracked his knuckles, carefully placed his hands on the board and bent over with anticipation. Closing his eyes, he breathed in deeply, savouring the aroma of the ferro-gallate. Meade knew that for Keg, there was nothing more intoxicating than a new blueprint; that he revelled in the ritual of the first examination.
Meade leaned against the thick wooden pillar behind him 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. His face grew paler. His eyes filled with a deepening fear.
Meade’s eyes narrowed, a frown tightened on his forehead. He pushed himself upright. “Keg? How dangerous is this device?”
Keg dragged his gaze off the plan and stared at him, horror etched into his face. “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. His mouth flattened. “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 knew he wouldn’t discover anything of value from the device smith. Not today. 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, he paused and looked back into the workshop. The door was taking its time in closing. Behind it, the room was quiet. Golden dust motes disturbed by his abrupt exit were settling back down. The samovar pinged.
Beneath the table, Keg clutched his knees to his chest, rocking himself backwards and forwards, whimpering, tears rolling slowly down his face.