by Hallan Mirayas

Three days later, Misha exited the Questioners' interrogation room, sword in hand, and immediately fixed the Long House doors in his mind. Dealing with those... people had put him in a foul mood, and he wanted a long string of drinks to deal with it. Nonetheless, he paused, disturbed, when he passed by a familiar door. He had to ponder it for a few moments before the dark smudge above the doorway and the empty sign hooks registered. He thumped the door with a closed fist. "Drift? Are you there?"

"Who is it?" came a carefully guarded response.

Misha tried to open the door, but it refused to budge, as if there was something heavy leaned against it. "What in heaven's name are you doing, you crazy mutt! It's Misha!" He threw his shoulder against the door, but it barely moved a hairsbreadth. "Open this damn door! I'm not in the mood for silly games!"

A short scraping sound came from behind the door, along with a faint hiss. The door cracked open slightly, just enough for Drift to look through with one eye. It glanced left, then right, as if checking to make sure the fox was alone. "Hang on." The door closed again, and Misha heard a metallic clink, followed a few seconds later by more scraping behind the door. The door opened again, wider, just enough room for Drift to poke his head through for a more thorough check of the hallway before he beckoned the fox in.

Misha squeezed through the partially opened doorway, and stepped aside as Drift pushed a heavy oaken dresser back against the door. The fox's one remaining ear, his right, flipped back in confusion as he watched the samoyed re-barricade the door. He reached over to lift a fireplace poker from a hook on the wall, its iron tip glowing red hot and faintly hissing with heat. "What is going on, Drift? Why are you barricaded in here like you expect Nasoj himself to come pay you a visit?"

"Close enough," the samoyed replied, checking to make sure the door was secure before dusting his hands off on a forging apron he was wearing. "I assume you've heard there are Questioners in the Keep."

The fox scowled darkly and he swore. "There are, Drift, but those vermin are far from here and closely watched. And if they do wander, I'll skewer them myself." He held up the glowing poker with a questioning glance.

"That goes back in the forge, please. I want it to stay red hot, thank you," Drift said, pointing. "They tortured my great-uncle with one of those; I figure it's only fair that I return the favor if they come calling. You can hang that sword of yours on those hooks by the door, if you'd like." After a moment's pause, he continued, "I finished up several of the gears you wanted. They're by the anvil if you'd like to take them with you."

Misha paused in the midst of hanging up his sword. "Wait, back up a minute. They tortured your great-uncle?"

"They killed my great-uncle, Misha, along with all his family and the vast majority of the people in the town, all because he dared to publish a common translation of the Word that the Ecclesia hadn't authorized."

Misha shook his head in disgust, settling his sword on the hooks with a clink of metal on stone. "And people wonder why we in Marigund kill Questioners on sight. Even the Ecclesiasts there do."

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Drift replied, carefully banking the forge fires so that the poker remained heated while the rest of the forge cooled. "Want to grab some food? I've got a stash of wine and food that I've been nibbling my way through these past three days, which you're welcome to try."

The fox gave a short bark of a laugh. "You, too, huh? I always keep a stash, myself. Been through a few too many sieges not to." He followed as Drift led him into the samoyed's living quarters, where Drift opened a low chest and fished out a bottle of wine and some bread, cheese, and a few strips of jerky.

"Spending time as a refugee teaches you to do it, too," Drift said as he handed over the bottle. "If you've been out and about in the Keep with them stinking up the place, you need this more than I do." He pulled out one more bottle, then laid everything out on a nearby table. He also tucked away a little black book that had been left out, and waved off inquiries about it. "Maybe later. First, food, drink, and a story."

"A story?" Misha asked, pulling over Drift's lone chair while the samoyed sat down on the bed, the table between them. "I hope it's a good one." Seeing that Drift hadn't bothered with cups or mugs, the fox took a swig directly from the wine bottle. "Mmm," he grunted in approval, muffling a belch that followed. "Good wine."

"I'd like to think so, but I'll let you be the judge," Drift replied, slicing the loaf of bread in half and offering Misha his choice of halves. Once the fox had chosen, Drift sliced his own portion lengthwise into two equal halves, top and bottom, and layered on strips of jerky and slices of the cheese. When he noticed Misha's quizzical look, he explained, "Something I came up with yesterday. I don't know what to call it, but it's an interesting taste. You should try it."

"Bored enough to start playing with your food, huh?" Misha asked with a smirk. "Okay, I'll try it. Now make with the storytelling."

While Misha copied Drift's creation, and between bites and swigs of wine, Drift told the tale. "My family is not originally from Metamor, nor is Snow our original name. Our real family name is Trendahl, and we fled here from Galador in Pyralis back when my father was a child. My grandfather's brother, my great-uncle, was named Weldon, and his life's work had been to create a common translation of the Word, so that people who could not read Old Sueil would not have to depend on the word of the Ecclesia priests. That way everyone could read all of the Word, as was intended by Yahshua, not just what the priests or the royal courts felt was 'appropriate'."

Galador... Misha's brow furrowed as he chewed on the surprisingly tasty treat. Where had he heard that name before?

"He made several trips to Yesulam, carefully seeking the oldest, most pure versions of the Word that he could find. Because he knew he was treading in a living language rather than one that did not change, he wanted to be as accurate as he possibly, possibly could. When he was finally done copying, he came home in a great excitement. When Grandpa asked him why, all my great-uncle would say was that Eli had shown him the way to make his book available to the masses. And he did. A year went by, and soon after that he started buying as much paper and ink as he could afford, down to his last copper.
"Four more months went by, and suddenly he started announcing that he had many copies of his book available for sale, very cheap. He even gave some away to the beggars in town! People loved them! Some people even took theirs out into the town square and started reading them aloud to passersby.

"Not surprisingly, this was not well received by the priests, and they got the Duke involved. My great-uncle was called before the Duke and was asked to recant, to cease publishing 'for the sake of the realm'." The samoyed scoffed, disbelief written large in his voice and in his expression. "He refused, saying, 'Milord, I am on a mission given to me by Eli, and I will not be swayed from it for any reason. My apologies, but I shall follow the path that has been set for me to its very end.'

"'That end may not be long in coming,' the Duke replied, and then sent him home with a warning to ponder matters carefully. Meanwhile, the Duke turned to his contacts in the black market and had them buy up all of Great-uncle Weldon's canticles, to keep them from those who needed them more than he. The joke was on the Duke, however, because Great-uncle Weldon had planned to sell those canticles through the black market when necessary, and he used the money he gained to buy still more ink and paper." Drift paused in his story and leaned forward. "And I swear this on my family honor... he had four thousand new Canticles ready for sale in a single month ."

Misha laughed. "I bet the Duke didn't see that one coming," he said, picking up the knife and slicing another wedge of cheese. "I wonder how many helpers he needed to get that many done, that fast."

"None. He did it all himself."

The knife clattered noisily from Misha's hand onto the table. "Four thousand books? In a month? Alone ? That's impossible!"

Drift nodded. "Impossible, but true. The Duke was just as stunned as you are. And that's when he sent in the Questioners, hunting for a Rebuilder conspiracy. Great-uncle Weldon had just enough time to send my grandfather the original copy of his translation, with a note to 'keep it as a keepsake of our childhood' before they arrested him. They found him at his home, stirring ashes and coals in his fireplace, and they beat and burned him with that poker trying to get him to reveal his conspirators. When he refused to name any names, they tortured his family, and then worked their way outward through the town. My grandfather and his family barely escaped ahead of the Questioners' arrests, and made their way north to Metamor, where they went into hiding."

"Hmmm." Misha frowned, pondering the story. "What did his message to your grandfather mean?"

Drift shook his head. "Nobody knows. Grandpa was killed by bandits on the way."

Suddenly, Misha remembered what had bothered him earlier. "Wait a minute... Galador?" The entire town had been closed off from the outside world and burned to the ground. "Do you mean to say—"

"Yes, Misha, I do. My great-uncle was murdered in the worst Questioner massacre in recorded history. It is only by the grace of Eli that we survived for me to tell you this today."

"And what became of the book?" Misha asked.

"You're sitting on it."


"Stand up. Now come sit on the bed and bring the chair with you." Drift took the chair from Misha and flipped it over. Despite having a wooden seat, it also had deep seat supports between the legs, braced with a bottom panel. Taking hold of the seat supports, Drift slid the front support two inches to the right, the rear support two to the left, and the sides two inches up and down respectively. Holding up a hand to forestall any questions, he then put a hand on the bottom panel and flipped the chair back over.

To Misha's surprise, the bottom panel came loose, dropping free as a small box, with grooves carved into the sides that corresponded with catches on the seat supports. "Very clever."

"Thank you. My mother came up with the idea. This is her box of keepsakes." Drift opened the lid, and revealed the treasure trove of a mother's heart: baby booties, a bit of jewelry, a yellowed letter, a small painted portrait of a man and a woman in a silver frame, a little wooden horse, a small top, a pair of wooden blocks with a baby's handprint in paint on each one. Anything that could rattle inside that velvet-lined box was carefully wrapped and packed so that it wouldn't shift or make noise. Drift took out each in turn, setting them on the table, and then carefully removed a false bottom. Beneath that was a black, leatherbound book, slightly worn with age, 'The Canticle of Eli' written in common in gilt lettering across its cover, a yellowed bookmark of plain paper sticking out of the top. Drift carefully, reverently lifted it out. "Misha, I need to ask you a favor."

"Go ahead."

"If something ever happens to me, I want you to come and find this. Thanks to Nasoj and the Ecclesia, I am the last son of an only child. Take it and protect it. Keep it safe."

"Me?" the fox asked, drawing back in surprise. "You want me to look after it?"

Drift nodded. "Absolutely. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have in that duty." He smiled slightly. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not long on brotherly companions here."

Misha's ear flicked back, his head ducking a little. "I'm..." he stammered, momentarily at a loss for words. "I'm honored."

Drift gave another nod. "I'm glad." He put the book back, replaced the false bottom and his mother's keepsakes, then put it back under the chair and re-secured it with four slides of the side panels. "It is our family treasure, and it eases my heart to know that it will be carried on. Thank you, brother."

"I'm really honored, my friend," Misha said, putting a hand on Drift's shoulder, "and I will guard it with my life, but you're going to live a long life yourself."

Drift set the chair right side up again before reaching over and chugging down the last few swallows of his wine. "Better safe than sorry," he said before letting fly a long, rattling burp that he made absolutely no effort to muffle. When he noticed Misha's startled look, he laughed. "Hey, it's not my fault you belch like a little girl. This is a bachelor flat. I can do what I please."

Misha laughed. "Wait 'til we get you a girlfriend. She'll clean that up!"

Drift opened his mouth for a retort, but shut it again without saying anything, a blush creeping into his ears. "Um," he said, glancing involuntarily toward his pillow, where he had hidden the other book when Misha came in.

The fox spotted the glance and pounced. "Aha! What do we have here?" he asked, leaning across the samoyed and darting a hand under the pillow before jumping up and moving just out of reach despite the dog-man's protests. His tail wagged in good-natured amusement as he flipped the book open... and then stopped still in surprise when he saw what was inside. "Drift? What is this?" he asked, turning the book to show a schematic drawing. It looked like some sort of staff...

Now it was Drift's turn to duck his head and ears, and his tail tucked as much as his seated position would allow. "Just some ideas I've had... nothing important," he replied, looking down and away. For a moment, he looked like a young child caught doing something wrong and expecting punishment for it.

"Drift," Misha said, looking the drawings over. "These are really good! And ingenious!" He looked closer, squinting at the details. "This is a weapon? It looks like something Rickkter would love to have."

The samoyed replied with a sigh and a shake of his head. "It's impossible. I can't get it to work. I want it to collapse into a portable size, or extend to battle length, but the only way I can think of would make it so big you couldn't hold it or so flimsy it would be useless. Not to mention the extendable spikes at the ends," he adds, standing up and walking over to point at a small inset in the corner of the page. "If it worked , it would be ingenious. As it is, it's just another wasted fancy."

Misha examined the drawing closely. "It's not a wasted fancy at all. This is really good. It could work. What metal are you trying to make it from?"

Drift gave Misha an ears-back look of bafflement. "How on earth could that work? No metal I've heard of could be thin enough to collapse into a cylinder you could hold in your hand, and still be strong enough to stand up to blows like I can deliver as a taur. Which is what that weapon is designed for." Reaching past Misha, he flipped to the next page. "These, at least, are a little more practical." He pointed to a roughly sketched taur, with focus added on the forearm, which was clad in a strange armguard . Projecting backward from it was a spike or blade, its obvious purpose to discourage someone from climbing onto the taur's back or encouraging them to get off. The taur's feet were shod in metal boots, like those Misha had designed himself, but with the addition of claws. An alternate version had leather laced up the legs, using metal only for the soles of the feet, which were designed to leave counterfeit tracks like those of cows, horses, or other beasts.

"These schematics are amazing, Drift," Misha said. "I truely mean it. And as an ex-siege engineer, I have an eye for things like this." Drift, his previous guilty embarrassment forgotten, flipped to the next page, with the scribbled label 'icehouse'. It looked like a standard warehouse, until Misha noticed all the notes mentioning insulation. "What is this?" the fox asked. "Why all the insulation?"

Drift pointed to a drawing of a normal horse, harnessed to an odd, weighted sled with metal rails. "Note how specific the width is here and here? This is so that the two rails are parallel. See the hooked ends? That's for carving ice. Find a large frozen pond or lake, drag those repeatedly across the same patch of ice, and eventually, they'll carve through. Now do the same at right angles to the first cuts and you've got an ice block that you can fish out and haul away. Not very useful solo, but let's say you do that across an entire lake and fill that warehouse. If you insulate it well, you'll have ice all the way into summer and fall."

"An ice house, huh? You could keep ice all summer and have no need for expensive magic spells. Drift, why haven't you tried to make any of these things?" Misha asked as he looked up from the book. "They could all work very well."

Drift looked away again, that guilty expression returning. "Do you really think I could have afforded any of it? I'm not exactly swimming in coins here." It was part of the answer, but judging by his body language not all of it.

In reply, Misha reached into the pouch hanging on his belt and dropped a large collection of golden coins onto the bed. "Money is no problem. At least, not with this fox helping you."

Drift pulled back sharply, nearly jostling the book from Misha's hands, his expression shocked as the fistful of garretts clinked onto his bed. It was easily two, more likely three years worth of smithing. "What? How? Where did you get all that?" he finally asked.

"My family are very successful merchants, and Will and my clocks sell for a tidy sum. It also helps that I get 5 gold for every lutin I kill."

Still in shock, the samoyed sat down on the bed, the small pile of coins sliding toward him in a small flood of clinking gold. He absently picked one up and flicked it with a claw out of sheer habit, his expression suggesting he didn't even know he was doing it. When Misha chuckled and agreed that yes, it was real gold, Drift blinked and blushed, hastily putting the coin back down. "Um. I don't know what to say," was his honest reply, ears flicking back and forth in open confusion. "This is... far too much," he continued after another long moment. "I..."

"You can say it's a deal, brother. I'll supply the money and you supply the great ideas." Misha's tail swished calmly. "I've never let the pursuit of money control my life."

Drift, who had started to gather the coins together to give them back, paused and looked up, one ear back and slightly to the side. "A... business partnership? Is that what you're offering? Because I don't know if I'll have any more. They seem to come in fits and starts." His other ear joined its fellow as he started to look aside. "Besides... Dad always wanted this forge to be a success, and if that's going to happen, I can't waste time chasing dreams."

Misha grabbed Drift by the muzzle and stared him straight in the eyes, ear angrily flicked down to the side. "-Never give up on your dreams. Dreams are what keep us alive. I'm a killer. The duke pays me to kill lutins. That gets me money. But my dream is to build a fine piece of art like Madog."

Drift's ears went flat back against his skull, the whites showing around the corners of his eyes, and he pushed at Misha's arm until the fox let go. "Don't... don't do that," he said, backing away, visibly scared, looking anywhere but the fox's eyes. "Dad used to do that when he was mad."

Misha backed away and went quiet for a moment, digesting that fact behind thoughtful eyes. "I'm sorry, Drift. I didn't mean to... alarm you. But never, ever give up on your dreams." To give Drift some time to pull himself together, the fox flipped to the next page and tried to puzzle it out himself. He recognized the windmill, but what was the braided line to the next building over for? Then it hit him... it was a chain! Looped around gears in the windmill, it stretched across to the other building, where the energy from the turning windmill was harnessed for work, rather than keeping everything in a single building. A note scribbled above the chain suggested that length was not a problem, just keeping it from being tampered with by innocent bystanders. 'Cover, perhaps?' was written nearby, along with 'could be used with a waterwheel, too.'

Flipping to the next page, he saw a large ship. The strange thing about it was that it had no sails. Instead, it had a waterwheel on each side, an arrow suggesting that they were rotating to push the water rather than be pushed by it. 'Needs power source!!' was scrawled in an angry slant on the opposing page.

The next page brought Misha up short, because this wasn't a schematic at all. Instead, it was a handsomely drawn sketch of some sort of bat, but with a vixen's head. 'Alexis' was carefully written underneath, and great care and attention had been given to details of the sketch itself, down to the lay of her fur and the curve of her wings...

"Now this is an invention I like," Misha said in a cheerful tone, his smile impish. "Where did you meet this Alexis?" Drift's eyes went wide and he blushed so brightly that it could be seen around his nose as well as in his ears. He made a hasty grab for the book, but Misha easily evaded it and continued, "And can you build one for me, too?" He turned the book sideways for another look and whistled. "Is she wearing anything under that wing?"

The poor samoyed put his head in his hand and mumbled a reply that Misha didn't quite catch.

"What's that?" prodded the highly amused fox. "Speak up, now, brother."

Drift opened an eye and scowled at Misha. "I said I ran into her tree."

"You whahaha?" Misha asked, breaking into a startled laugh mid-question. Dodging another snatch for the book, he asked again, "You what?" Whatever Misha had been expecting, it hadn't been that.

"Stop looking at her like that," Drift snapped with an ears-flat frown, dropping his hand to reveal a jealous, defensive anger written openly across his face. He held out an expectant hand toward Misha. "And give me my book back, please."

Reluctantly, the fox handed over the treasure. "She really does look cute. Did you really run into her tree? Couldn't you have just said hello like normal people?"

"Yes, I really ran into her tree," Drift replied, taking the book back and holding it close. "More specifically, my head ran into the limb she was sleeping on. I was out for my pre-dawn run around town three nights ago, just before the Questioners showed up, and I tried for a shortcut through an orchard." He put his hand to his right forehead, as if checking for something. "Yeah, I still have a bit of a lump left over from it."

Misha shook his head, trying to supress a smile and failing. "You need to watch those low-lying branches. They're tricky and evil, just waiting for you to get close so they can reach out and attack you."

Drift thumped his tail on the bed in amusement, his ire fading. "Funny guy. It didn't help that I was a foot taller than normal."

"You were running in taur form, and beaned yourself? Ouch."

"Yeah. Alexis said I was out cold for about five minutes. And, in answer to your question, no, she wasn't wearing anything under that wing. She sleeps in animal form to save on living expenses."

"I keep warning you that being a taur takes a lot of getting used to. You are a lot taller and heavier then when two-legged."

Drift snorted. "Yes, I was made painfully aware of that," he replied dryly. "Though at the training session later that day, it came in handy."

Misha snickered. "So I heard. Did your really kick that poor man in the family treasure chest? George said Wolfram couldn't speak for five minutes."

"Closer to three, I think, but it was his fault for giving me the opening. He loves to taunt while he's fighting, and he just had to pause for a dramatic line before the coup de grace. He was standing right astride my legs, so I took the chance he gave me and it only cost me a battered old pair of pants. I thought Coe was going to have conniptions when he saw me on his doorstep again."

"Are you sure you aren't secretly in love with Coe? I've heard rumors to that effect." Misha kidded. "You always seems to be in the infirmary getting patched up by him."

Drift rolled his eyes at the fox. "I never pictured you as one who listens to rumors. At least not rumors of that type." Without realizing he was doing it, he stroked the cover of his little black book, and a smile started to creep onto his face as Alexis' face in the moonlight drifted across his imagination.

Misha noticed the dreamy smile. "You're thinking about her again, aren't you?" the fox asked. "I know that look all too well. You've got it bad ."

Ears pink with a fresh blush, Drift nodded. "She's probably pretty ticked at me now, though. When last I saw her, out by the castle gates—"

"I heard about that , too," Misha interrupted with a laugh. "Pow, right off the wall track and straight into a mud puddle."

"I, er, kind of got roped into a date that night," Drift continued, scratching behind an ear, his head slightly ducked. "And I kind of missed it when I barricaded myself in here."

"Oh!" Misha said with an empathetic wince. "You really are in trouble." He pondered for a moment before continuing. "My suggestion is an 'I'm sorry' gift. A nice bouquet of flowers or sweet treats and a lot of 'I'm sorry's. A nice dinner at a fancy restaurant could work well, too."

"Ummm... I really don't know that much about her." Drift shuffled his hands nervously. "I've only met her twice. I don't know what she likes. She called herself a fruit bat, and she was sleeping in an apple orchard, but she's so unpredictable..."

"All right, how about a double date? Caroline and I and you two go to a fine little place I know down in Euper. It's a little hole-in-the-wall I stumbled across one day, and their food is really spectacular."

"You'd do that?" Misha had to struggle not to laugh at how pitifully eager Drift looked, his tail wagging so hard it thumped against the mattress at the end of each sweep. "That would be wonderful!"

The fox gave in after only a few moments and laughed anyway. "Down boy!" he said, waving his hand for emphasis. It didn't help, because Drift was already up and bouncing happily about. "And of course I'd do that. I haven't taken Caroline out to dinner in a long time." He stooped to pick up Drift's idea book, which had fallen from his lap again, the portrait of Alexis half folded over. The next page caught Misha's eye and he flipped to it. The schematic was even more sketchy than any of the others, as if only partly finished, but the shape reminded him of something. He flipped back to Alexis' portrait, then looked at the schematic again. It looked almost like her spread wings...

"Drift? What's this?" he asked, reaching out to snag the happy canine as he passed.

"That? I don't really know yet. She stretched her wings out full once, to demonstrate their span, and something hit me." He swirled his fingers like someone who is trying to remember something half-forgotten. "I haven't quite figured out what that something was yet, but there's something interesting there."

Misha snickered. "Did she do that while she was still naked?" He laughed when the question brought the samoyed to a stuttering, blushing halt. "I'll take that as a yes." After a few moments, he let the dog-man off the hook. "Tell you what? I'll be in my workshop installing those gears you finished. You go find your lady friend and get back to me with a time, alright?"

Drift nodded. "That's fair. Have you had a chance to look at the scrap metal you wanted to test for impurities?"

"Yes, I did. The scrap you gave me was, for the most part, absolutely riddled with phosphorus and sulfur. Whoever sold it to you cheated you." He paused and fished around in a pocket. "Which reminds me... Here, I made this for you. It should help."

"What is it?" Drift asked, taking the gift and turning it over in his hands, examining the runed metal.

"Are you familiar with the concept of a tuning fork? Strike it against something and it rings a very specific note? This particular fork, when struck against metal, will ring clear if it's pure, quietly if it's of middling quality, and make a flat clack if it's bad. Just take it with you when you go on your next supply run and tap it against any metal you're about to buy. Your ears shouldn't have any problem telling the difference. Just name the metal you're testing for first."

Drift smiled and set the fork on the table. "Thanks, brother."

"Not going to test it?"

"Why? I trust you to know what you're doing."

Misha smiled at the compliment. "That said, a good portion of your scrap was also overheated. Did you ever get that figured out?"

"Yeah, Pascal gave me a... what did she call it? A thermometer to measure the temperature. I've been working on figuring it out."

"A what?" Misha asked. "I usually just measure the temperature with a spell and by sight. How does it work?"

"Here, let me show you." He beckoned, taking his idea book back from Misha and setting it on the table before leading the way to the forge room.

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