I would like to thank user ATKH for beta-reading my work. He's a gem and a good editor, not afraid to tell me where I'm weak and where I need to improve. Thanks, buddy.
The train hissed into the station.
Arcs of galvanic energy cracked and popped across the rails as the train came to a stop. Multicolored light from the noon sun streamed down through the stained glass ceiling of the station, bathing the floor with yellows, reds, blues, and oranges.
Jesse Woodram stepped out of the train, stretching his muscles. Napping on those stiff seats was a killer on the back and shoulders - He had no idea how some people did it. He yawned, blinking the drowsiness out of his eyes. He was wearing a long, red overcoat with tails that went down to his ankles. Underneath that, he wore a loose, off-white button up and baggy brown trousers.
Around Jesse’s neck hung a pair of protective goggles, a little battered and scratched but still perfectly functional and useful for dealing with some nasty business. On his hands he wore a pair of fingerless gloves with metal studs on the knuckles.
Jesse cracked his neck and strolled off the train and onto the station platform, slung a beat-up duffel bag over his shoulder and ran his fingers through his red hair, which seemed to be more disheveled than usual. He must’ve been asleep longer than he thought.
He walked through the station, getting his first taste of Irondale’s local culture. The domed ceiling of the station depicted the story of Altor the Righteous in lavish detail. The station halls were lined with stands selling pretzels or sausages with honey mustard sauce. bakeries with what smelled like fresh bread sat next to little shops selling knick-knacks, statues and fancy paperweights and the like, made from the town’s eponymous iron.
Outside the station, down its solid stone steps and onto the cobbled streets was Irondale proper. Lines of buildings twisting into streets and alleys spread out a fair distance, the horizon dominated by a tall clock tower from what looked to be the center of town. Men and women walked to and fro along the sidewalks, some were seated outside cafes, and others still squatted wherever it was comfortable playing card games or marbles.
Boys in flat caps and overalls were around the odd street corner trying to sell newspapers. Jesse remembered being there as a kid himself, starving and not a mark to his name. He strode up to the closest one, a squat kid with a big nose, and bought a paper off him. He barely had enough money for lunch now, with only two marks left.
The smell of the town was just right for an afternoon in the beginning of Fall, with a crisp tinge to it that heralded the harvest season. It was Jesse’s favorite time of the year, when all the best confections of the land would show up at once, pumpkin pies and peppermint chocolates. The finer things in life for sure.
Jesse took in the scenery, feeling the town’s life pulse all around him as he walked down the streets. Shop windows displaying the latest in men’s and women’s fashion, books of a wide variety, handcrafted toys for children, and the latest mechanical parts for those with prosthesis and personal automatons. There were even parts for ironhulks.
He eyed the fashion displays. He had no idea how people lived wearing fitted jackets and slacks, with shoes that clicked with every step. Jesse preferred comfort over fashion.
Practical, casual, and comfortable. The three tenets of style according to Jesse Woodram. Of course, many objected to his ideas, calling his sense of style sloppy and unprofessional. It was either his mother, his brother, or anyone he had to go on jobs with. Usually accompanied by criticisms of his lifestyle, whether it was he drinks too much or that he got into too many fights with nasty bar-squatters or that he didn’t clean his quarters so that his nudie mags were visible to visitors.
The last one chafed Jesse the most. How else was he supposed to find them? When he put things away, they had a tendency to disappear. Then he always had to tear his room apart looking for them, and by that point it was back to square one. Better to have controlled chaos. That way the room had some character to it, but didn’t get too messy. So very few people appreciated that, especially in the guild.
Jesse fixed his hair using a store window as a mirror, much to the chagrin of those inside. He made his way to the nearest tram stop, hopped on the tram north and let Irondale pass lazily by. Around a bend there was a square with street performers in clothes shabbier than his own playing brass instruments and banjos, or doing simple magic tricks for passersby.
Strange that, really. People were surrounded by magic every day, from the lights in their homes to the motors in their cars, all of it functioning off magic as an infinite resource. In the bigger cities towards the central province, you couldn’t go two steps without tripping over a mage. The buggers were everywhere.
Around these parts, mages were still something of a novelty, even the most elementary of spells drawing a crowd.
His hair blew in the breeze of early Fall, the chill of the wind bringing a slight tingle to his face. He stared at the statues carved into the very buildings themselves. Figures of angels, great men and women, saints, demons, animals, soldiers, and plethora more. Saint Kalen and Saint Cerea holding up a lantern that welcomed people into a church of the All-Father. The archangel Tethemos standing victorious over the corpse of a demon on the wall of a post office. King Lucian Rexland relaxing on a bench near a dog park. What a beautiful place.
The north side came up sooner than expected. Mansions for the wealthy with lawns the size of baseball fields decorated with fountains and hedges cut into the shapes of serpents and elephants or elaborate geometric designs.
Most just had big steel gates and stone walls to protect them. The mansions belonging to more important people also had armed guards, with either swords or rifles at the ready in bright uniforms and armor. It all seemed like a wasteful display of wealth, a show of “we have more money than you, and we want you to know it”. Like a peacock that needs to strut.
The tram stopped blocks away from the Mayor’s mansion. Jesse hopped off and continued on foot, taking in the rich and swanky part of town.
He noticed right off the bat was how tall the streetlamps were. They had to be almost fifteen feet tall compared to the more normal eight feet tall. What was it with rich folks and their obsession of making things so unnecessarily grand? They couldn’t just live in a house, they had to live in the biggest house with the best yard. They couldn’t just have normal old streetlamps, they needed to be taller than a giant.
And despite all that, they couldn’t even buy good food. Caviar just tasted like salty jelly. Nothing beat a bit of beef and potato from the pub. Which pub? Doesn’t matter. They all have their own flavor and they’re all good. Rich folks can have their fish eggs.
He spotted a pair of old ladies out and about, wearing their flowing dresses of snow white and rich blue. One of them walked a small dog, one that had to be no bigger than a large rat. They looked away from him, they didn’t want to sully their good day by looking at such a slovenly dressed commoner, no doubt.
The mayor’s mansion had tall front gates, and the two blue-uniformed guards posted by them didn’t seem to like Jesse very much. Maybe they didn’t like anyone.
One of them, a human, had a pair of thick muttonchops and a crooked nose. The other one was a dwarf with a shaved face, though it seemed that his eyebrows made up for the lack of a beard. Jesse flashed his guildsman’s badge. Their expressions didn’t change. Jesse sighed.
“I’m here to speak with Mayor Vignis,” Jesse said. “I’ve been contracted to deal with your local kobold problem.”
The human guard grunted to the dwarf and the dwarf approached, holding out his hand. Jesse just rolled his eyes as he presented his paperwork, fishing it out of his coat pocket and sliding the neatly folded slip of paper into the dwarf’s meaty hand.
The dwarf unfolded the paper and read it over quickly. He probably wasn’t even reading the damn thing, just looking it over and making sure the stamp was on it.
The guard nodded and handed the paper back to Jesse.
“Let him in,” the dwarf guard said. His voice was like a chain smoker chewing on gravel.
The gates crept open, creaking as they parted to let Jesse in. He didn’t even wait for it open all the way, strolling in when the gap was just wide enough for him to enter. This got him a glare from that dwarf.
The walkway from the gate was short, but lead to a rather substantial staircase which in turn led up to a pair of ten-feet-tall front doors. At eye level, there was a knocker in the shape of a lion’s head with a ring clenched in its jaws snarled outwardly at anyone coming to visit.
Guy sure does know how to make people feel welcome, Jesse thought to himself.
He reached out and knocked three times on the door, banging the bronze ring against the wood. A minute passed before a butler cracked the door open to inspect Jesse first. He could read the skepticism on the sliver of the butler’s face. He flashed his guildsman’s badge. The door opened further to reveal the butler and the interior of the mayor’s mansion.
The butler himself was a rail of a man, tall and thin with a long face and dressed in a clean, dark gray suit. His mouth was covered by a large, almost comically large, mustache that curled inward at the tips. He had a bald head too, a polished one that shined in the light of the foyer.
“Greetings, master guildsman,” the butler said, his voice that of an ancient man despite his body saying ‘fit sixty-year-old man.’ “Follow me to the sitting room.”
The butler walked with an even, calculated step. Like an actor going through the motions of a rehearsed play. He swiveled on his heels and seemed to glide across the tiled floor. Jesse followed behind, suddenly self-conscious about his own gait. He put one hand in his pocket and the other around the strap of his duffel bag.
The foyer was as you could expect in a rich man’s mansion. Big and spacious, with paintings hanging on the walls depicting major historical figures and of the mayor himself. From the paintings, he appeared to be half-elven.
His ears had points like an elf, his eyes were angular and large and a rich blue in color. His features were fine, with a broad, flat nose. His skin was from his human half, probably his father, as it was dark brown. Very few elves had naturally dark skin, and even then they weren’t as dark as the mayor’s. His hair was cut short and parted from the left. His look was that of ‘no nonsense’, that he didn’t like anything disrupting his calm.
The butler opened the sitting room’s door, inviting Jesse inside. He strode in,. It was a cozy place, with a crackling hearth on the far wall supplying the room with the heat only burning wood can provide. The walls had bookshelves that extended to the ceiling, filled with what seemed like hundreds of tomes and books.
Close to the fire was a vacant desk of quality one would expect from regional nobility, fancy but not too lavish. The desk had stacks of books and ledgers on it
On the desktop lay also a partially completed puzzle cube. Jesse had one of those on his own desk, it helped him think while having to do paperwork. Good to know the mayor and he were kindred spirits. He might get along with him after all.
“Would you please take a seat, master guildsman,” the butler said, gesturing to a couch that faced the desk.
The couch itself was rather average, with a dark wood frame and blue cushions decorated with thin lines of gold. The wood had carvings of flowers and vines running along the edges and down the legs. Jesse parked his butt on the couch and put his duffel bag on the coffee table that sat between the couch and the desk. The bag made a heavy, metallic ‘thunk’ when it rested on the coffee table.
“Master Vignis will be with you shortly,” the butler said, his posture still as stiff as a board.
“Could I get some snacks or something,” Jesse said, resting his heavy boots on the coffee table, crossing his feet and leaning back in the couch. “I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning when I left from Bullford.”
The butler scowled at him in reply, not amused. He simply swiveled on his heels and exited the room, closing the door behind him with a click. Some people just have no sense of humor, it seems. Jesse sighed and sunk into the sofa’s plush cushions.
It must be hard not falling asleep in a place like this, the warmth from the hearth and the softness of the couch made it an ideal resting place. Hell, it was better than his own bed back in Rookerton. While the temptation was strong, he had a job to do. He fought against the urge to just take one more nap.
Good thing too, since a moment later Mayor Garrin Vignis came into the room. Jesse sat up a bit straighter as the tall, imposing man made his way to his desk.
Vignis’s eyes were more piercing in person than in his portrait, with a hard stare and a sneer of either contempt for Jesse’s slovenly nature or the fact that he had his feet on the coffee table. Not that it would stop him from resting his legs after such a long journey. Vignis cleared his throat.
“Good afternoon, master guildsman,” the mayor said, his voice, deep and smooth, with a cold undertone of command. “I see you’ve made yourself comfortable.”
Jesse could only grin. “Nice to meet you too, Lord Vignis,” he replied, not moving his feet from their resting position. “What’s this I hear about you having a kobold problem?”
Vignis sighed, making his way to his desk. He strode smoothly across the room and sat in his chair in one, seamless motion. He certainly carried himself like a proper member of the gentry.
“Yes. A kobold infestation has been plaguing the outer reaches of town,” Vignis said. He leaned forward on his desk, resting his elbows on the surface and lacing his fingers together. “It seemed like standard kobold activity at first. Only stealing shiny objects. Then they started raiding the farms for grain and untended food. Then they stole from the taverns. This isn’t normal kobold scavenging behavior, as my scout master has told me.”
“So you’ve called me in to investigate and deal with this menace,” Jesse said, twirling a lock of his wine red hair with his finger.
“Correct,” Lord Vignis said simply.
“Why contract out to the guild, though,” Jesse asked. “You could easily have a force of guardsmen investigate and exterminate your pest problem.”
“I don’t want to put more resources than I have to into this. Too many guards out in the farmlands will cause a panic. Thus, I’ve called on the guild to aid me.”
Jesse smiled. He switched the position of his feet, the movement was accompanied by loud thuds, courtesy of his heavy boots. “You’ve called the right man for the job, Lord Vignis,” he said, a satisfied smile creeping across his lips. “I’ll deal with your little problem. Of course, we guildsman don’t work for free.”
Garrin Vignis groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Your payment will be met in full after you fulfill your mission.”
“Surely, someone as wealthy as you can afford an advanced payment, Lord Vignis.” Thoughts of his anemic wallet flashed in his mind. He would need some cash for the road to cover travel expenses, lodging once he was out in the farmlands, and food along the way. That’s also not taking into account any medical expenses.
“How’s about,” Jesse tapped his chin, thinking of a good number. “A five thousand mark down payment now and the other ten thousand after I’ve dealt with the ‘bolds?”
Lord Vignis sighed. He opened a drawer on his desk and sifted through the contents within. He eventually came out with a few stacks of bills, presenting them on his desktop. “Here,” he said. “Three thousand marks in advanced payment. You will not be getting a copper more until the job is done.”
Vignis’s eyes narrows at Jesse, hostility glistening behind them. Jesse frowned, but got up from his seat, walking over to the aristocrat’s desk to take the money.
As he reached out to take the stacks of cash, Garrin grabbed his wrist. Jesse jumped slightly and looked up into the mayor’s piercing blue eyes.
“You had better be as good as they say you are, Woodram,” Vignis said.
“Oh, believe me, Lord Vignis,” Jesse replied, a sly smile making its way across his lips. “I’m all that and more.”