Blood dripped from Cliff's chin to soak his chest.
Whimpering, he made his way through a group of raggedy younger children who ran and played around him. They squealed with delight at his misfortune, darting amongst themselves like the gulls frolicking above. Cliff flinched as a rock bounced off his shoulder, opening his split lips to sob only for a mound of thrown mud to hit him square in the mouth. Hacking and coughing, he elbowed his way through the gang of youths, who merrily danced out of his way only to fling more sticks and filth at his back. Their cackling filled his ears along with a sing song tune they trilled behind him.
"Cliff-Cop, Cliff-Cop, abandoned on the hill-top!"
With their prey unresponsive, the children's interest waned, and they dashed off to find further amusement, cavorting as they scattered, their next child's ditty drifting back to Cliff on the light breeze.
"Copper bends, and Silver spends,
We're told by Gold that Rust offends!"
Cliff finally turned down a quiet, narrow street. The houses and storefronts he passed gradually shrunk from larger, imposing structures to more ramshackle and ill-repaired hovels. He stopped under a swinging wooden sign, a simple clock face outline engraved in copper. Taking a breath, he pushed open the door, which chimed quietly as he entered. Cliff squinted into the dark store. The air was stale and musty, dust motes sparkling in the few sparse rays of sunlight that splashed through shuttered windows. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Cliff felt his way along the right wall, hands lightly touching on a number of the clocks of all shapes and sizes that ranged across rows of shelves. The soft ticking of so many timepieces encased the room in a gentle background hum.
Master Horologist Corveus sat behind a wooden counter in the centre of the store that doubled as his workbench. Parchments of schematics were strewn across the table around the empty casing of the clock he was working on, along with various cogs and gears. He clicked his tongue as his ink and oil-stained hands rifled through the array of paraphernalia. Corveus only glanced up for a fraction of a second as Cliff presented himself immediately before him. Cliff thought he saw a shadow flicker across his mentor's weathered face, but it was gone in an instant. Corveus returned to his work silently, copper tweezers delicately placing a tiny cog amongst a network of intricate gears in the clock chassis. Cliff shifted his weight uncomfortably as he waited. Finally, Cliff opened his bloody mouth to speak, but was cut off as Corveus waved a hand dismissively.
"Bucket." Corveus rasped.
Cliff felt his face crumple. "I'm sorry, Corveus, it wa"
"Now." Corveus didn't raise his voice, but it grated like an anvil.
Grumbling to himself, Cliff stormed through the rest of the store, kicking an already dented copper bucket along with him out the rear of the building, feeling his composure fall apart. He bit back a cry of exasperation as he gripped an old iron pump attached to a small well outside. He pushed up and down, up and down, methodically. As the bucket slowly filled in sporadic gushes, the familiar rhythm eventually calmed him.
He placed the pail on the floor behind Corveus and waited again.
Cliff did so, settling uncomfortably on the hard wooden floorboards as Corveus swung his chair around. Cliff wasn't sure if the creaking sound was his mentor's old joints or the rickety chair. Corveus dipped an oil-stained rag in the water and wrung it out, then gently mopped the boys chin. His wrinkled hands were pale, mottled with blue veins, but deft and sure as he went about his work clinically. His expression remained impassive. With nowhere else to look, Cliff stared at his mentor. Corveus had creases from his wispy crown to his narrow chin. A pair of battered brass bifocals perched precariously on a hooked broken nose, which he peered down like a raven inspecting a shiny coin. Cliff complied as his somewhat clammy hands prised the boys mouth open, inspecting his jaw. He felt a tooth wobble, then gasped as Corveus produced his tweezers out of nowhere, seized the tooth and pried it free in one smooth motion. Cliff gurgled as blood welled from his gum, before Corveus inserted a wad of cotton in the gap. Corveus resumed his ministrations without a word.
Cliff's thoughts drifted elsewhere as the pain receded. He felt relieved Corveus was evidently having a good day. On the bad days, Cliff had noticed his mentor's hands start to shake involuntarily. The time between each episode was growing more frequent. Cliff hadn't even noticed at first, as Corveus would politely excuse himself at the first sign of a tremor and retire to his small room at the back of the shop. Cliff had once stared through the cracks in the keyhole and witnessed the palsy strike, gradual twitching slowly becoming more violent, full-body convulsions. Worryingly, each episode was occurring more and more frequent. He always wondered how Corveus could bear it in silence. Cliff had tried to broach the subject in small talk on numerous occasions, but was met with either deflections or ignored completely. Getting more than a single word out of Corveus was rare.
Cliff's eyes unglazed as the door chimed again.
A mountain of man, clad in brass plating from head to toe, clanked into the store, holding it open for a business-like woman who followed. She was middle-aged, with tan breeches tucked into brown leather boots, and a slim boyish figure emphasised by a leather vest that strapped a pinstriped blouse to her body. She had a sandy mess of shoulder length wavy hair, which she brushed out of her hazel eyes with one hand, various metallic bracelets jingling at her wrist. In the other hand, she held a wooden board with a dossier of parchments attached.
"Bucket." Corveus grunted again, without taking his eyes off the newcomers.
Cliff didn't hear him as he gazed in awe at the soldiers frame. The lifelike falcon on his stylised helm had wings outstretched from his crown, its head and beak jutting over his eyes, the overhang leaving the soldier's face in shadow. Brass-mailed fists rested casually on his hips as he stood to attention at the door, elbowing aside the embroidered gold and white cape to reveal the burnished pommel of a greatsword at his belt.
Corveus cuffed Cliff lightly around the head and motioned towards the back of the store, still watching the woman warily. Cliff sighed and backed out of the room, taking the now bloody bucket of water with him. As soon as he slammed the door behind him, he raced around the side of the shop to peer through a gap in one of the shuttered windows. All three of them in the store were still, silent and motionless. Cliff watched with baited breath, and had to cover his mouth to stifle a gasp as the woman suddenly clapped her hands.
"Corveus!" She crowed, her voice melodic and cheerful. "It has been too long, how do you fare?"
Corveus did not reciprocate her light-heartedness. "Administrar Clarissa. What do you want?"
Clarissa jaunted along the shelves, clipboard tucked under one slender arm, poking at various clocks and accoutrements. She bent to take a closer look at one in particular as it struck the hour, and a miniature sparrow popped out of the clock, chiming merrily an inch from her nose. She giggled and squawked back, poking out her tongue out at the metal bird.
"How charming!" Cliff didn't know if she was addressing the bird or his masters demeanour.
"You know, Corveus, if you moved to the more affluent part of town, these would sell much better. Nobles and their ladies are always willing to pay cold silver, or even gold, for these sorts of...gizmos. But tucked away in the Foil Quarter well...what use do the poverty-stricken have for timekeepers? They rise with dawn and retire with the dusk."
Corveus ignored her, and took up his tweezers and gears to continue with his work, but Cliff noticed he was just going through the motions, his attention still on Clarissa.
She dragged a finger along a dusty shelf. "No time for chit-chat, Corveus? Well then, let's get down to business. Today is your lucky day!"
She unrolled a parchment from her clipboard with a flourish, and dropped it on the table in front him.
"You've been fortunate enough to receive an anonymous patronage! A substantial stipend indeed, from an un-named benefactor. Furthermore, your existing Class Three License of Contraption – Sub-class C: Horology, has been reviewed and you have been deemed eligible for an upgrade to Sub-class B: Advanced Automatons. It's already approved – just sign the papers!"
Corveus stared at the parchments as if she had a dropped a live viper on his desk.
"A fortuitous coincidence, Clarissa? The very same morning my apprentice is robbed and beaten?"
"Copper bends, Corveus! The license alone is worth three apprentices – you can expand from clocks to..." Her hands fluttered as she looked around "...to anything! There are few craftsmen in the city with such a creative license. It is in your best interests to graciously accept this offer."
Corveus drew another oil-stained rag from the folds of his robes and cleaned his bifocals.
His words dripped like venom from curled lips. "When did the Guild's Administrators become the lapdogs of House Silver, Clarissa? Silver sticks, and the Guild's grasping hands grow sticky. I'll have none of it."
Her face pinched and her eyes flashed – all sparkle of merriment extinguished.
She leaned over the table and snatched a feather quill from an inkpot.
"I'm. Trying. To. Help. You." She growled as she signed the papers with a ragged "C" under his name.
"There are forces in this city that will not be reckoned with, Corveus. The small cogs grind their part, lest they be ground to dust by larger gears." Her voice lost its heat and dropped to almost a whisper.
"Be a good cog, Corveus. Survive to spin another da-"
She halted as a bell rung out. A deep knell, it boomed from the centre of the city. Three times, then a pause. Then three times more. The occupants of the store stood silently with baited breath. The behemoth in brass, still as a statue the whole time, jerked his head in alarm.
The bell rang three more times. Cliff could hear doors slamming open as people poured onto the streets, voices shouting and uncertain. When he glanced back inside through the crack, Clarissa had already swept up the parchment and was scurrying outside without a word, her guard forcing a path through the now-crowded streets.
Cliff made his way back inside. Corveus didn't seem to notice the empty bucket, his eyes distant as he stared out the shopfront.
"Corveus? What's happening?" Cliff didn't expect a response, and was surprised when his master replied, gaze still fixed on the now-chaotic commotion outside.
For the first time, Cliff heard his mentor's thick voice crack.
"The bells toll today for death, Cliff. Thrice times three. The Emperor is dead."
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